Could it be that you’re using the wrong leadership configuration for your personality?

Are You A Solo, Duo or Trio Style CEO?

Are you suffering from executive loneliness?

Could it be that you’re using the wrong leadership configuration for your personality?

Whether you are employed as a CEO or self-employed as a CEO, a fundamental choice you have made (and will continue to periodically make as your enterprise grows) is to be a solo act or a dynamic duo. In simple terms, whether to have:

  1. no business partner, or
  2. one (or more) business partner, or
  3. an unofficial business partner.

By business partners I mean two (or more) executives in an interdependent versus independent professional working relationship. I am referring to the kind of core team formation we see in organisations throughout history and across the spectrum of human endeavours – within business, politics, sports, religion and the arts.

There are three core configurations you can use as an executive:

  1. The Solo Approach
  2. The Duo Approach
  3. The Trio Approach

Let’s take a closer look at all three. But first, let’s ensure we briefly revisit the definition of an executive I provided in an earlier article entitled Coaching 303:

Managers who are in the top and upper levels of their organisations: CEOs, other C-level managers, senior vice presidents, division managers and executive directors of organisations.

To Partner or To Not Partner? This Is The Perennial Question!

The short answer. It depends.

Some examples of the kinds of partnerships I am referring to that you may be familiar with include:

Some common examples in organisations include:

  • A CEO and a COO
  • A CEO and a CFO
  • A CEO and a Chairman
  • A CEO and an Executive Assistant
  • A CEO and a Chief of Staff
  • A Marketing Manager and an Assistant Marketing Manager
  • A Managing Director and another Director of the same organisation

It is important to note that by Director herein, I mean the legal definition provided by the Australian Securities & Investment Commission versus simply the use of the word Director in a position title, like Director of Marketing, which some people think is a misappropriation of the term Director, preferring to reserve the use of the word Director to align with the legal definition.

When one member (typically the one with more authority) of such a core team moves on to a new job in another organisation (or project opportunity) we may even see the other person (or character) move with them.

1. The Solo CEO Approach

Many CEOs I have met (interviewed or worked with) have concluded that they prefer to pursue their vision without having to consistently consider the vision of others. In their experience, a business partner equals the potential for compromise – which doesn’t always produce the best outcome. They are quite happy being the sole director (and potentially sole shareholder) of their business. Or they prefer to be the CEO of an organisation and communicate information between their board and their management team through themselves only, as the single channel of what is relevant, in terms of filtering the flow of information. In this case, they don’t have a dedicated running mate; like a COO or CFO, that they work more closely with than the rest of their management team.

The leadership ethos of this first category of CEO’s is encapsulated in the following quote:

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.  Leaders are much like eagles …they don’t flock; you find them one at a time.”

General Douglas MacArthur

Eagles are known for their sturdy vision and their shrill focus. Eagles are reputed to have the sharpest vision of all birds. Legend has it that when an eagle’s eyesight grows dull with age, it glides up towards the sun and by staring at the sun, which only it can do, it burns away all the mistiness of age.

I’ve concluded that the Solo CEO Approach is completely legitimate and suits certain people and personalities perfectly. There is no reason you must interpose a COO between you and your board as your organisation grows, for example. In the same way, a small to medium sized business owner does not have to bring on a second business owner to grow their business. It is possible to take work free holidays (even an extended sabbatical) by putting the right people and systems in place.

The Duo CEO Approach

Other CEOs I’ve met have learned through trial and error that they prefer to operate like more the caped crusader, aka Batman. Success for them comes through forming and forging a formidable, complimentary team of two. In their experience, a business partner enriches their thinking and potential. They seek someone to take many of the operational concerns away from them, enabling them to focus on strategically developing the enterprise. Much like driving a car, this kind of CEOs sees themselves as the right foot (pressing on the accelerator to try and speed up progress and the rate of change) whilst their COO is then free to act like the left foot (pressing on the brake to prudently keep the vehicle under control, ensuring it slows down to negotiate turning corners). The role of the right and left feet respectively in this metaphor obviously depends on which country / side of the road you’re driving in / on that is.

The leadership code of this second category of CEO’s is perhaps best reflected by the following quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Rather than seeing the threat or obstacle of compromise, this second category of CEOs see the opportunity of collaboration as a critical ingredient to unleashing their full creativity. They look for a running mate that compliments their style. Someone who has strengths that complement their weaknesses, and vice versa.

3. The Trio CEO Approach

There is a third kind of approach that you may be unaware of.

 When clients work 1-1 with a business executive coaching consultant from nLIVEn, they soon discover that there are three people in the room. Let me illustrate using a hypothetical client named John. Here are the three people I am referring to:

  1. John (The Manager)
  2. John (The Worker)
  3. Glenn (The Coach)

John (The Manager) has come to see Glenn (The Coach) because he wants to develop deeper clarity around his vision and a better sense of direction. There are some big choices he knows that he needs to make to define and refine his strategy, to foster more focus. There are key stakeholders that need to be engaged – by communicating his plan and garnering their commitment. He needs to translate the strategy into tactics and drive execution, whilst elevating performance. He recognises that he doesn’t have all the answers and is too close to his own situation to see it objectively. He’s looking for an independent and unbiased sounding board to talk things through with, to help make sense of things. Ultimately, John is looking for someone to ensure he makes decisions and follows his intentions through.

John (The Manager) and Glenn (The Coach) need to assess the current capabilities of John (The Worker). What additional training, systems and support does John (The Worker) need to lead and manage more effectively? What obstacles are there to John (The Worker) making progress and how could they be removed?

John (The Worker) and Glenn (The Coach) need to assess whether the expectations of John (The Manager) are realistic and achievable. If not, John (The Worker) needs to talk through how to best negotiate with John (The Manager).

Following the timeless advice of Pythagoras, the three people in the room set about regularly “making the triangle”, between the three of them, as they meet periodically for sessions together. Progress starts to become easier, even faster.


Which category best describes you:

  1. The Solo CEO Approach, or
  2. The Duo CEO Approach?

In either case, would it be more prudent to consider using a combination approach:

  • The Solo CEO Approach & The Trio Approach, or
  • The Duo CEO Approach & The Trio Approach, in tandem?

A client once remarked to me, “Working with nLIVEn is like the business partner you have when you’re not having a business partner”.

However, I’d go one step further by saying “Working with nLIVEn is like the business partner you have when you’re not having a business partner as well as the business partner you can have even when you are having a business partner.”

Adding an unofficial business partner, i.e. adding an executive coach or business mentor to your executive team, is a great way to generate greater collaboration and combat professional loneliness.


Blog: Coaching 303 – Coaching The Executive

Book: Visioning by Glenn A. Williams

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