Two heads are better than one, and in business, partnership can be a
powerful strategic tool. Paul Simpson looks at how pairing up can double your
chances of success
Comedians, fictional detectives and ‘Tin Pan Alley’ songwriters all prosper
as dynamic duos. Yet most of the analysis of what makes a great leader – an
obsession almost as old as history and an industry in its own right since the
1970s – assumes great leaders will be a solitary Napoleonic figure, such as
Rupert Murdoch. Now, after the damage all the scandals have done to public and
investor confidence in the modern corporation, there is a case for challenging
that final shibboleth.
The concept of co-leaders goes back a long way – Roman consuls were first
appointed in 509 BC – but it is especially popular in Silicon Valley. Many of
the best known names in the internet business were founded by two partners. If
it worked for Yahoo (whose revenues will top $1bn this year), Hotmail (sold for
hundreds of millions of dollars to Microsoft) and Google (whose brand is
estimated to be worth $2bn – not bad for a five-year-old company), then it
could work for your company.
Four years ago, American academics David A. Heenan and Warren Bennis wrote a
book called Co-Leaders: The Power Of Great Partnerships. Quoting the Roman sage
Cicero – "If a man aspires to the highest place it is no dishonour to him
to halt at the second" – the authors suggest companies might be best run
by two leaders.
They point out, for example, that behind a leader such as Microsoft’s Bill
Gates, was a backroom genius – in this case, chief executive officer Steve
Ballmer. Without him, insiders say the company would fall apart faster than if
Gates left himself. And Bennis feels that Enron et al has made their case
stronger than ever.
The golden rule is that partners should have different strengths (and,
crucially, must not want to oust the other). Yoke two high-profile media savvy
partners together, and you can end up with the amalgam of mistrust and
resentment that characterises the alliance of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It’s
much safer all round if one leader has an eye for detail and remains behind the
scenes while the other basks in the public eye.
The key to these partnerships is that it’s not a case of having (or paying)
two chief executives, but of playing to each partner’s strengths to maximise
the strength of the company.
Bennis says co-leadership can shape a company’s HR culture.
"You learn to celebrate the enterprise not the celebrity, foster
togetherness, build trust and team goals and balance power," he says.
"You also institutionalise dissent." To be effective, good leaders
need disinterested, ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ counsel and someone they can sound out
who won’t feel obliged to stand and salute, no matter how stupid the idea being
run up the corporate flagpole."
Bennis says the effect doesn’t stop in the co-leaders’ offices.
"In strong co-leadership cultures, caste distinctions are kept to a
minimum. CEOs and other top executives do not share in the divine right of
The following cases demonstrate just how successful pairing up can be.
Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen
The names might not be that familiar to you, but Marc Andreessen was jointly
responsible for launching the internet browser Netscape. He later worked at AOL
and in 1999 he launched an internet start up called Loudcloud, with his friend
(and Netscape and AOL employee) Ben Horowitz as chief executive officer.
Four years later, two amazing things haven’t happened. First, Loudcloud
hasn’t gone from dot com to dot bomb, and second, Andreessen and Horowitz
haven’t split acrimoniously. The company is now known as Opsware, marking a
shift into software, but Andreessen is still the partner who grabs the
As one of a handful of men who can claim to have invented the internet,
Andreessen acts as the inspirational visionary leader while Horowitz ensures
that Andreessen isn’t betrayed by the bottom line. Also a useful conduit for
Andreessen to communicate with staff and managers, he says: "I act as his
Andreessen says: "Being a CEO is a difficult job. Not many people are
suited for it, but Ben is an actual manager, not a guy with an MBA. Hiring a
guy with an MBA is like hiring ball players who went to baseball school and
watched movies of guys swinging bats."
Opsware has $65m in the bank, aims to be cash-flow positive this year and
made a net loss of just $3.2m last year, an improvement of some $208m on the
year before. Horowitz is getting some recognition too, picked out as one of the
25 rising stars in US business by Fortune magazine. Not that he’s looking for
PR. He once had himself airbrushed out of a picture of the executive team taken
for a business magazine. "I don’t like the limelight," says Horowitz,
"so it doesn’t bother me."
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Laurel and Hardy’s partnership endured for 29 years – some achievement by
Hollywood standards. Laurel did most of the pre- and post-production work on
their films, while Hardy did his scenes before heading to the golf course. His
attitude did have financial repercussions – Laurel was paid twice as much as
Laurel was born in Cumbria and raised in English music halls. Hardy was
running a cinema in Georgia when he decided to see if his unusual girth might
help him break into movies. In the mid-1920s, Hardy arrived at the same film
company where Laurel was working for producer Hal Roach, and after a few
successful comedies, they became inseparable on screen.
For all his talent, Laurel knew he was never as effective without Hardy.
Hardy’s death in 1957 triggered Laurel’s nervous breakdown although he
recovered before he himself died in 1965.
To describe Laurel and Hardy as co-leaders might seem inappropriate, yet, as
Laurel tried to make clear, on screen they were of equal value. Being a
straight man is arguably the toughest job in show business and Hardy was one of
the best. But he was also a perfect physical, emotional and mental foil for
Laurel, and a true partner.
Sven Goran Eriksson and Tord Grip
Thirty-three years ago, a Swedish PE teacher called Sven Goran Eriksson
asked Tord Grip, then the player/manager of an amateur football team called
Karlskoga, if he could train with the team. Eriksson soon became the team’s
newest (and worst) player.
Together, with Grip in charge, the duo managed another Swedish club and,
pioneering English tactics, revolutionised Swedish football in the face of
intense criticism. They reaped different rewards. Grip coached the Swedish team
which came third in the 1994 World Cup. Eriksson, after winning the UEFA Cup
with Gothenburg, coached some of Europe’s most famous clubs before becoming
England coach. Since 1997, Eriksson has always had his old mentor by his side.
Outsiders wonder about the internal dynamics of this partnership, but
Eriksson simply says : "Tord is my eyes. Nobody has the feeling for
football he has."
Grip often acts as his coach’s ambassador and talent-spotter, and they share
a ruthless, scientific approach to football (Eriksson recently complained that
the low level of iron in England players’ blood was affecting their
performance). That attitude sometimes leaves fans and journalists crying out
for more evidence of passion.
Eriksson inevitably gets most of the media attention, although he rarely
says anything quotable, while Grip acts as a "lightning rod" for
Eriksson, saying things the coach feels he can’t or shouldn’t say.
For Eriksson, Grip is a perpetual source of informed, independent, counsel.
His final crucial advantage is that he is not after the England coach’s job.
It’s a mysterious double act, but one that should endure.