Let’s talk about the ramifications of SalesForce’s naming Keith Block as co-CEO with founder Marc Benioff. Actually, it’s a short conversation. It’s a non-event. Nothing’s going to change. Co-CEOs can be a huge distraction. Most organizations with co-CEOs spend way too much time figuring out which Caesar to serve. Having co-CEOs works well only when the co-CEOs operate as true partners. That being the case at SalesForce, the distraction is the title change, not Keith and Marc’s roles and the way they work together – which have not changed.
As I’ve said throughout this series, executive onboarding is the key to accelerating success and reducing risk in a new job. People generally fail in new executive roles because of poor fit, poor delivery or poor adjustment to a change down the road. They accelerate success by 1) getting a head start, 2) managing the message, 3) setting direction and building the team and 4) sustaining momentum and delivering results. Note there’s nothing here about title.
Titles are communication devices. They can help others figure out your rank and key responsibilities. Most of us can figure out that a “master plumber” is more appropriate for some complex plumbing issues than might be an “apprentice plumber.” And we can figure out that neither of them is right to fix a complex electrical issue.
But titles can be confusing. In some organizations vice-presidents report to directors. In others directors report to vice-presidents. I met one division head that thought he was first among division heads because his title was “division president” while the other division heads were called “managing directors.” But he was in a British company in which the titles were equivalent.
Thus titles can help and can be confusing. What matters most are roles, interdependencies and how people work together. As an executive onboarding into a new organization or new job, get that right. Figure it out as part of your going-in negotiations. Failing in that, clarify it as part of getting a head start during your fuzzy front end between accepting and actually starting.
The fundamental difference between co-CEOs working effectively and not working effectively is in the culture they create together. Culture is the collective character of an organization. Individuals have character (not necessarily good character or bad character, just character.) Those people come together to create an organization’s culture.
But not all the players are equal. In a founder-led organization, the culture directly reflects the founder’s character traits across behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and environment. In other organizations, the CEO will have an especially strong influence on the culture. Co-CEOs have that influence together. When they are deliberate about the traits they want to model and engender and do so, things work better. But when they are at odds with each other, that flows through the whole organization.
Benioff and Block know each other well enough and complement each other’s strengths well enough that they shouldn’t have any issues. Anyone other executives onboarding into co-CEO roles should clarify:
Environment – The context for your co-CEO assignment. What’s the problem for which this is the right solution?
Values – What really matters and why to you, your co-CEO and the organization. The closer you two are aligned, the closer all three are aligned, the better.
Attitude – The most critical choices around how to win together.
Relationships – How you two are going to work together and communicate with each other and the rest of the organization. You don’t have to be best friends. You do have to be best work partners.
Behaviors – What each of you is going to do on your own and together.
The best partnerships are complementary. The best partners seek out, value and leverage their partner’s differential strengths. Partnerships implode when one tries to do what the other does better. That won’t be you. You’ll care more about roles and complementary strengths than you will about titles.