Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Revenge of Zaphod BeebleBrox - Why 2 In a Box CEOs Never Work

Matt Asay broke the news that the talented COO of SpringSource, Neelan Choksi, left the company recently just as SpringSource announced 250% annual growth. Savio Rodriguez expanded on the theme and wondered why an exec would leave a growing company.

I have no particular insight into Neelan's situation, but I have a lot of insight into the difficulties of managing a startup with a CEO and a COO (at SpringSource, Rod Johnson is the CEO and Neelan was the COO). I have found that splitting the CEO/COO in a small company, also known as "two in a box" is pure trouble.

Two in a box means putting two people in charge of essentially the same job. You don't need an MBA to see that there is great potential for mischief here. The inevitable conclusion of two in a box is always the same … and then there was one.

The whole thing reminds me of Zaphod BeebleBrox, the two headed character who was always arguing with himself.

Here's how the Zaphod BeebleBros brainstorm pitched by the board: "this will be great! Zaphod here (the CEO) will be the external spokesperson for the company, while Beeblebrox (the COO) will be the internal, get it done guy."

Needless to say, it never works quite this way. Even when you have two really strong players (which I believe is the case at SpringSource), it is extremely difficult in a small company to keep from stepping on each other's toes. Here are just a few of challenges in a two-in-the box startup team:
  1. Who's vision? Inevitably, there are differences in vision between the CEO and COO and these differences always come out at awkward times.
  2. Maybe I'll get a better answer from mom. Any exec who gets an answer from datd they don't like can always try asking mom.
  3. The buck stops over there. Particularly for difficult decisions, there is a natural tendency for each exec to palm off some of the tougher calls to their counterpart.

No comments: