Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thoughts on The Secret Sauce of Corporate Leadership in The Wall Street Journal

Yesterday, I read this great piece by Lawrence Cunningham about the need for a "skeptical #2" in the C-suite.  He's absolutely right, of course:  the best leaders of anything* (big businesses, small businesses, higher education, primary and secondary education, government, teams of people, etc.) recognize that they need people who can force them to think things through.  The "skeptical #2" is the opposite of the "yes man."  He or she is the person who says, "yes, but."

Here's my favorite part of the piece:
Many legendary CEOs were the more visible halves of hidden duos: Mike Eisner with Frank Wells at Disney ; Roberto Goizueta with Don Keough at Coca-Cola ; and Tom Murphy with Dan Burke at Capital Cities/ABC. Though the arrangements varied among personalities and settings, there are common threads. A prominent leader drew enormous value from a second in command who quietly contributed complementary talents, provided a sounding board—and exercised veto power. Results went far beyond good governance and performance to extraordinary achievement.
It's that "complementary talents" point that we should take away from this piece, if we remember just one thing about it.  No one's good at everything, and the value of an honest, direct second-in-command is that that person can bolster those skills that aren't as strong in the leader.  Great second-in-commands are hard to find, because they have to have enough ego to be able to speak frankly to the leader and yet be willing to let the leader take the spotlight.  And they have to have enough clout with the leader to be taken seriously.

What if there's no good second-in-command?  A Chief Legal Officer (if there is one, and if the structure allows the CLO to interact with the CEO directly) might be able to help.  If the CEO is smart enough and secure enough in his or her talents, some other direct way of giving the CEO advice might help, but the point is to be able to reach the CEO before a big decision is made, not afterwards.  The most important thing that a leader must know is that very smart people can make some very dumb decisions (for my incessant squawking about this, see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here), and that even the most talented of people needs a trusted ally to help provide the necessary checks and balances.
* Anything that involves more than one person.  If you're "leading" just yourself, you're either a bit unstable or really, really self-actualized.

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