History is full of magical partnerships that broke the mold, accomplished remarkable things and captured our imaginations: Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
Some get on famously while others are infamously love-hate relationships. Some are timeless while others burn brilliantly and burn out in a flash. They’re as unique and unpredictable as the individuals involved, but one thing’s for sure: Partnerships work -- to a point.
It’s certainly true of founding entrepreneurs. Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The list is long. But there comes a point in a company’s growth when partnerships are no longer effective -- when one must lead and the other must follow, or quit.
When two heads are better than one:
In a startup, when you’re trying to come up with a breakthrough, creative idea or marketable product, it helps to be able to bounce ideas off of someone equally vested in a positive outcome. Often partners can achieve things together they might never have done otherwise -- creating a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” phenomenon.
There will always be outliers, of course, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson who seemingly change the world and create business empires all on their own. I would argue that even those unique individuals usually have partners too, if not of a less formal type. The truth is, nearly all of us are at our best when we have someone to brainstorm with and inspire us.
Then there’s the practical matter of sharing the many tasks and responsibilities involved in forming and running a business. If you’ve never done it, the workload and responsibilities are enormous. Having a partner cuts both in half.
Another benefit: Most business partners have complementary skills, experiences and perspectives. For example, one might be a strategic visionary who points the way while the other is a nuts-and-bolts operating manager who keeps everyone executing to-plan. Companies need both and it’s rare to find that in a single individual.
There’s also an emotional factor. Startups are a lot like rollercoasters. It’s hard to stay positive and motivated, to persevere in the face of enormous obstacles and brutally long hours. Good partners keep each other pumped up. They provide a backup when one has to be in two places at once, which happens more often than you might think.
Clearly, there are all sorts of reasons why partnerships make sense in the early days. But then, something changes. The startup grows into a real company.
When it's time for one leader to step up to the plate:
Over the years, I’ve worked with lots of management teams of companies big and small, from startups to large enterprises. I’ve seen companies go through major growth spurts and transitions with every kind of management configuration you can imagine.
And while management is more art than science, certain methods and constructs tend to work far more frequently and readily than others. What I've found is that partnerships seem to work well in startups, but lose their luster and even turn toxic when a company grows up.
Why is that? Sometimes it's simply a matter of style or personality conflict. Other times, it's the simple fact that people change. There are so many variables, that it can be impossible to point to just one. But there are some very important challenges to partnerships that are not only foreseeable, they’re inevitable.
Dual leaders introduce complexity and confusion that makes managing an organization harder than it has to be. It’s challenging enough to develop, produce and sell better products. Why introduce unnecessary internal risks as well?
I’ve worked with companies where strong leaders shared responsibility and found that usually, this leads to a sort of corporate schizophrenia. Partners can’t come to consensus at critical strategic turning points. They end up pulling employees in different directions.
Simply put, when there’s lack of accountability or clear lines of responsibility, bad things are bound to happen. This makes it that much harder for employees to operate effectively and work together to achieve what should be common goals.
While startups can get by with some leadership dysfunction, once they grow up, it's time to scale and manage complexity so that employees can work together like a well-oiled machine.
There are lots of ways to accomplish that, but one thing’s for sure: When members of a management team disagree on something important, there has to be one clear leader who decides which path to choose. Those who disagree can either get on board or quit.
Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.