In 2001, when five friends left their full-time jobs and pooled their savings to launch the Indianapolis, Ind.-based company Bluefish Wireless Management, they made a bold decision: Instead of establishing the traditional hierarchy of one CEO, they would split the top job five ways.
The unconventional structure has worked well, and the five launched a wireless mobility management platform, MOBI Wireless Management, in 2009.
How do a handful of smart, driven people run two companies without power struggles or conflict?
Co-founder Scott Kraege says it’s been “an evolution – and stepping on toes is part of the process.” But here are some of the lessons they’ve learned to remain effective and resolve conflicts.
1. Divide responsibilities. In the beginning, duties overlapped, causing duplication of effort and conflict. Soon, Mr. Kraege and co-founders Joshua Garrett, Christian Browning, Michael Browning II and Tony Paris reasoned that because each had a different area of expertise (including finance, marketing, sales, information technology and operations), it made sense to divide areas of responsibility along those lines. While they have all been involved in each area of the company, they took the lead in their individual areas of expertise.
2. Communicate regularly on big picture topics. The co-founders hold twice-weekly meetings, each lasting several hours. Mr. Kraege says they talk through new ideas, results and measurement, focusing mainly on strategy and high-level decision-making instead of day-to-day management issues. Nothing is off-limits, however, and the group talks through conflicts and challenges when they arise to prevent them from escalating. “You have to be brutally honest with each other,” he says.
3. Expect conflict. Because each of the CEOs brings a different perspective, Mr. Kraege says that has the potential to create “some great knock-down, drag-out battles.” However, their frequent meetings help them work out differences and each is good at remembering that they’re all equal in the business and to keep an air of fairness and respectfulness, he says. They remember that each has the best interest of the companies they run at heart.
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4. Direct employees clearly. In the beginning, employees got some mixed messages from different members of the leadership team, Mr. Kraege admits. However, after areas of responsibility were divided, they made sure to separate employee direction along their areas of responsibility. Soon, staffers learned which partner to consult for answers in any given area.
Mr. Kraege says the advantages of having multiple CEOs outweigh the challenges.
“As one CEO, I could see how you’d get kind of beat down by making a couple of wrong decisions or pushing for the wrong ideas. But as a level partnership with five unique perspectives, you get a very broad sense of decisions that you’re making and how those decisions are going to impact the business and strategy moving forward,” he says.
Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author ofThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).
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