Achieving Business Success

By Robert L. Bailey

This may not be a trend – I hope it isn't – but I'm seeing with some frequency companies with co-supervisors, co-managers, and even co-CEOs. Co-arrangements in a business environment generally don't work well.

Don't get me wrong. Co-everything isn't bad. Such as marriage. Marriage is the most successful partnership in the world, and it works only about 50 percent of the time. Still, marriage and two-parent families is a worthwhile institution, even though it's a struggle at times. The kids ask mom if they can go to a movie. She says no, so they ask dad. Before long they know who to ask for what. They learn that dad is more likely to let the child go to the movie with the other kids; mom is more likely to let the youngster borrow the car to visit a friend. They work one against the other.

So it goes at work. Employees soon learn which co-manager will more likely react favorably to certain issues. An employee may wait hours, even days, until one co-manager isn't around so he or she will have good reason to ask the other.

Communication, upward and downward, becomes even worse, for too often one co-manager is kept somewhat in the dark. An edict from above may have reached one and not the other. You can bet that co-managers are just as unhappy – probably unhappier
– with this co-reporting relationship than the people reporting under such an arrangement.

Why are co-managers appointed? I've asked this question dozens, and maybe hundreds, of times. Perhaps there are valid reasons that I've been unable to unearth, but the co-managers I've observed were selected because their superiors (or boards of directors) had two good people they didn't want to disappoint. By choosing both, there is co-disappointment. Their unwillingness to make a proper decision caused a good organization to become weaker.

What about co-CEOs? It's normally war from day one. One will win the political battle; the other will probably leave the organization. During the skirmish, the organization suffers.

Shared responsibilities and teamwork are two different things. Teamwork involves several highly motivated individuals who are interested in completing a common mission – a mission for which the team and its leader can be held accountable. Shared responsibilities often involve a fuzzy direction and diluted accountability.

We often see this in government, under the guise of checks and balances. It isn't unusual to see a dozen or more government agencies involved with a specific activity, with oversight from a dozen or more congressional committees. No one knows for sure who is responsible, but you can be certain there are many to blame.

A number of years back at my former company, we had a significant loss problem in one of our states of operation. At our 7:00 a.m. Monday senior staff meeting, I said to my direct reports, "I think we should fire the person responsible. Who should we fire?" They looked at me for a few seconds, trying to figure out whether or not I was serious. Then one suggested that the underwriting manager for the state was responsible for the loss; another said the sales manager; a third suggested that the actuaries who made the rates were at least partially responsible. Several others were also suggested as possible culprits. Another added with a smile, "It looks like the only person who we know for sure is responsible is you." He was only kidding – I think.

We had permitted an organizational structure to emerge with no clean lines of accountability. A change was in order – and soon.

Through the years I've been involved with dozens of smaller operations that had decided to merge. Joe Brown and Bill Smith, competitors in the same market, have decided to join forces to become "more efficient." They have the details all worked out and have hired lawyers to draft the appropriate documents. I've glanced at the papers and asked, "Have you considered how to break apart the partnership if you decide to do so somewhere down the line?"

"No," they usually answer, "but we're good friends and we know we'll never want to break apart our partnership."

"I hope that's the case," I respond, "but every year we're involved in as many partnerships breaking apart as we are creating new partnerships. Right now, while the partnership is being formed, why don't you decide how to break it apart – now while you're good friends and you're able to communicate. It will be easier to agree now than it will be at the time of a breakup."

Certainly there are exceptions to all general rules. But through the years I've found that most successful businesses have clear lines of accountability – specific people who can be identified, by name, rank and serial number – individuals who can be praised and rewarded when things go well and who can be held accountable when performance is not up to par.

Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO of a major company. Visit or contact him at 919-629-6226 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..