01-10-13 | Blog Post
Sometimes a business lunch can change the course of your life.
Five years ago, I was CEO of a network security company called Interlink Networks. I had been hired by its venture investors to turn it around and reposition it into new markets. We accomplished those goals, drove it to profitability and the management team purchased the company from its investors.
Looking for my next challenge, I set up a lunch meeting with Yan Ness to pick his brain. He had purchased several companies in the past and I wanted to find out how he did it & what to look for. Somehow, between walking into the restaurant and walking out, he talked me into buying a piece of Online Tech and joining the executive team.
Yan and I hadn’t worked together up to that time, but we did have a common former business partner, Jim Price, who each of us had worked with at different times in our career. Upon hearing the news that I’d be joining Yan at Online Tech, Jim told us we’d both just made the biggest mistake of our lives.
Five years later, Online Tech has quadrupled its revenue and has become recognized at the national level as a leader in compliance-based cloud computing. Yan and I are now poised to lead Online Tech into an exciting time of growth as co-CEOs.
To Jim’s credit, he saw and understood our differing management styles and decision-making processes at the time. What he couldn’t have envisioned was the unique working relationship we’d build over five years, based on a set of counter-balancing strengths, common values and resolute trust.
The premise for co-CEOs came up as we recapitalized Online Tech after receiving a $20 million investment from News-Press & Gazette Company to help us expand into new markets across the Midwest. The expansion plans are a natural step in Online Tech’s evolution.
The co-CEO arrangement is worth a bit more explanation. In most organizations, it’s easier to have one leader, somebody who calls the shots, than it is to have two leaders sharing the responsibility for making the final decisions. In fact, Yan and I both agree that the co-CEO arrangement works because of our unique relationship. We wouldn’t recommend the approach for most companies – it’s very hard to create the dynamics that Yan and I have at Online Tech.
But it works for Online Tech and it has some real advantages for us.
The division of responsibilities hasn’t changed much since we made this announcement. I have a passion for working with our clients – sales, marketing and business development. Yan loves the technology side, so he continues to work on operations, client services and product management. Together we work on strategy and leadership of the company – preaching our purpose, core values and client focus across the company.
As a CEO, our job is to look down the road. At Online Tech, I’m looking down the road and Yan is looking down the road. Sometimes we see different things based on where we’re sitting or what we’re responsible for. Making each other aware of those things strengthens that vision. Perhaps I hear something from a customer that sparks an idea. Or Yan hears something from the operations team that does the same. Having two people sharing that vision makes us twice as effective, and increases our agility to respond to our clients needs.
With co-CEOs, you have two people making decisions and the strength comes in that balanced view unique to Yan and myself. We agree 95 percent of the time on how to address the key issues and challenges we face. In the situations when we disagree, we can take the process offline, have a separate conversation and emerge with a fully-debated, best decision. That’s not to say it’s easy – ask anyone who has seen us debate an issue we both feel passionately about. But the mutual respect we have for each other and common destination help us to listen to each other and keep the conversation honest and professional.
The way we think about things and the way we approach problems can be very different. That brings a real strength to the decision-making process. And sometimes, by having two viewpoints, we find a solution that neither of us thought of by ourselves. It’s often said that the CEO position is the loneliest job in the company. There are some problems and some decisions that you can’t discuss with the rest of the management team or your board of directors. The combination of two experienced CEOs gives us an unusual advantage – the ability to bounce ideas off a peer that has the same stake in the outcome. We approach things differently, but each brings something to the table that makes decisions better informed with peer review at the highest level.
But what really makes this work is a concrete purpose, alignment of values and absolute lack of any type of power struggle. One of our core values is “Great Ideas” – which means we believe in the ego-less evaluation of ideas so that the best rise to the surface no matter where they come from in the organization. That core value plays out every day in our corner office. If we make a great decision based on what Yan brings to the table, or vice versa, it’s a win-win because we have equal stakes.
We entered the era of co-CEOs at Online Tech because of a unique situation and a unique combination of individuals that already existed. There’s no doubt in my mind that this gives us a unique advantage over our competitors. We now have a better leadership structure and ability to make faster, better decisions as we take Online Tech to the next level.