4 Tips for Harnessing the Tension That Comes When a Visionary Hires an Integrator

Once a business reaches $5 million in revenue and/or a staff of 30 or 40, it's too complex for a visionary to handle.
Guest Writer

Tension: The word often carries negative connotations; for example, it's the term most often used these days to describe the declining trade relationship between the United States and China.

Related: Are You a Goal-Setter or a Visionary?

But tension is a positive force as well. Consider a sprinter's legs, gathering and releasing tension as they propel him down the track -- or the anchored, yet flexible, tension that holds up San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Likewise, the tension between a company's big-idea entrepreneur (the "visionary") and its get-things-done operational leader (the "integrator") can create a beneficial visionary-integrator dynamic.

According to the Entrepreneurial Operating System, the visionary is typically the person who originally conceived the idea for the company and remains focused on the bigger picture. The integrator, conversely, sets priorities, removes obstacles and resolves conflicts to bring that vision to life. Simply put, the visionary's job is to build next year's business; the integrator's job is to run this year's business.

To illustrate: In the movie The Founder, the visionary McDonald brothers obsessed over every aspect of their restaurant, much to the chagrin of the more business-savvy integrator Ray Kroc. Once Kroc, a practical problem-solver who understood that perfectionism hinders progress, stepped in to manage the McDonald brothers' vision, the team established a globe-dominating franchise.

Of course, this dynamic works both ways: Sometimes it's the visionary pushing for expansion as the integrator holds back.

Refining the tug-of-war

Our CEO, Robert Glazer, is our visionary at Acceleration Partners. For more than two years, he advocated consistently for expansion into the U.K.; he had a clear vision of our company operating overseas. I agreed with him that going overseas was key to our long-term growth, but as our company's integrator, I worried about the hurdles we'd face entering a new market.

The resulting tension between us lasted for some time, with Bob pushing the idea and I holding out for the right timing.

Eventually, the stars aligned, and our patience paid off. When a great opportunity in the U.K. presented itself, we took it and didn't look back. Without pragmatic hesitation, we might have made the leap too soon. Conversely, without Bob's vision, we might never have looked at expanding into the U.K. That's how visionary-integrator tension is supposed to work.

Bob and I make a great duo, but like any strong marriage of ideas between two partners, this type of relationship doesn't form overnight. To cultivate a successful visionary-integrator dynamic between you and one or more members of your leadership team, keep a few key concepts in mind:

1. Know when to make your proposition.

Being both a visionary and an integrator is quite rare. According to the Entrepreneurial Operating System, only about 5 percent of entrepreneurs possess both skill sets. Beyond a few exceptional cases, you'll need an integrator to determine whether your ideas will move the needle forward, and help finding operational solutions for major issues before things start to break.

A powerful visionary entrepreneur might be able to get away with hiring just a director of operation and a director of finance, for a while. But if no one pushes back on the visionary as the company grows, who will be able to view the business objectively enough to identify and solve key problems? This is where an integrator comes in.

In my experience, good theoretical thresholds to keep in mind include reaching $5 million in revenue and/or a staff of 30 to 40 people. Once you reach those numbers, the business has often ecome too complex for an entrepreneur to handle alone while still doing what he or she does best -- expanding that original unique vision.

2. Cement the partnership with trust.

If a visionary brings in an integrator but never relinquishes any control or cultivates transparency, the visionary will be left clinging too tightly to his or her ideals. While this attitude is understandable -- any outsider might have a difficult time understanding the significance of a visionary's idea -- it damages trust.

One solution is to hire an integrator internally; it's likely that a positive working relationship with that person has already been established. Even if you haven't worked directly with the best candidate before, hiring from within is still best. He or she has already been vetted by the company and will be familiar with its mission.

After you select your integrator, it's important to follow a framework to set boundaries. Our team uses the operating system outlined in Gino Wickman's book Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business as a framework for outlining rules, tasks and parameters around roles. Without just such a concrete system, things can get murky and allow negative tension to build.

When Wickman, who founded EOS, joined his father's sales training company at age 25, he observed nothing but money-losing chaos. Upon further observation, though, he realized that his dad wasn't nuts -- he was actually a brilliant visionary. But the father needed the son to help him integrate that vision and turn the company around.

Related: 5 Tools That Keep Team Communications Untangled

3. Learn how to talk through frustrations.

Both sides will get upset and frustrated with each other at times; that comes with the territory. Lines of communication, however, must stay open so you can have productive, diplomatic discussions.

At AP, Bob works quickly and sometimes speaks in incomplete sentences. He's the expert, the one with all the ideas, and he occasionally forgets that not everyone is on the same page he is.

This is common among visionary entrepreneurs, and it can cause communication breakdowns. Of course, integrators can have their own problems communicating, too, if they get hung up on details and become stubborn.

For each person to understand how the other communicates, each needs to build self-awareness, which is sorely lacking in the business world. In a study discussed in the Harvard Business Review, less than a third of participants could accurately assess their performance at work.

Bob and I developed our self-awareness by seeking outside opinions from coaches, peers and colleagues who we trust to give us accurate feedback. Once we determined how people responded to our communication styles, it was not only easier to understand each other and to call each another out but to take responsibility. We do this with phrases like,"Sorry, I know I'm rambling. Let me get to the point."

4. Make face time a priority.

Bob and I have a formal monthly meeting we call our "strategy breakfast." We also have informal one-on-ones nearly every day because face-to-face communication works. Email might work better at your company, of course. But no matter which channel you use, communicate openly and consistently.

The Wright brothers embodied this concept. In fact, Wilbur credited communication with most of their success: "Nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussion between us," he reportedly said.

In his book Start With Why, author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek talks about the importance of companies having both "why" types and "how" types. Look at any great visionary, and you'll find an integrator behind him (or her): Bill Gates had Paul Allen; Herb Kelleher had Rollin King; and Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak.

Related: Team Not Talking? Here Are 4 Ways to Boost Communication.

The goal is for the visionary to work on long-term goals that don't require a lot of specific project management. Conversely, most of the senior management team reports to the integrator, so that person faces deadlines, reports and profit and loss statements.

Visionary entrepreneurs form great ideas; integrators bring those ideas to life. Over the long term, then, entrepreneurs are much more likely to succeed with an integrator by their side.

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