Visionary conflict

Fred Mael

 Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO,  June 2012

At first, CEO John was totally infatuated with Visionary Founder Steve – his charisma, his breathtaking sense of what the future held.   For his part, Steve welcomed John as a partner to deal with the practicalities of running a large company, thereby freeing Steve to do what he did best. However, after the honeymoon, the relationship went sour. John began to see Steve as impulsive and irresponsible, while Steve saw John as overly controlling and short-sighted. They clashed, and Steve was forced out of his job at the company he had founded – to be followed by John a short while later, in part because of the loss of Steve.

This is an over-simplified version of the teaming and breakup of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, and John Sculley, the CEO he hired from the heart of corporate America (Pepsico) to complement his own skill set. Yet, a similar drama occurs often in businesses small and large. A creative Visionary decides to join forces with a highly organized Manager to gain the benefit of each other’s talents. Often, there could be no business without the partnership.  At some point, the Manager becomes frustrated or enraged with the Visionary’s disinterest in such things a staying within budget, adhering to deadlines, or customer service. Conversely, the Visionary resents the Manager’s focus on issues that do not generate the greatest wealth, on efforts to squeeze creative staff into the same work habits as bookkeepers, and on a general failure to see the big picture. If issues are not worked through, the partnership will dissolve, to the general detriment of all.

Often, the help of a consultant, mediator, or coach is the best way to lower the temperature, provide some objectivity, resolve substantive issues, and restore equilibrium. Short of or in conjunction with these efforts, here are some steps that can help salvage a situation, addressed to you, the Manager and you, the Visionary.

Understand yourself

You need to understand your own strengths and limitations, even if they conflict with your assumptions about what someone in your position should be able to do. If you are a Visionary, driven by creating and plotting out the future, you may not value the nuances of running a meeting or tracking a budget. Perhaps you did well enough when you were a small shop, but now that you’ve grown, someone else who cares about details and deadlines should be monitoring those functions.  Perhaps you feel you need to justify your title by having these roles assigned to you, but you somehow never seem to prioritize them. In fact, you may actually be preventing someone else from doing it right.

Understand your Other  

It is often surprising how successful Managers like you cannot really accept that others are radically different from you.  You can’t fathom how someone in a position of responsibility, no matter how creative, would ignore a client’s call or delay seemingly pressing decisions.  You may acknowledge that the Other is exceptionally talented, far more innovative than yourself,  and possibly necessary for the survival of the company. However, you reason that these talents are just an overlay on what are basic human characteristics – dependability, attention to detail, and responsiveness to clients’ time frames. In fact, your resident Visionary comes as a package deal – the same ability to go way outside the box and anticipate the future may be correlated with a limited concern for being responsive to others’ requests or for being fiscally careful. Your assumption, that you share a common value system and that the Visionary is merely being petulant or immature, shows an inability to see the world from another’s perspective and is not helping the dialogue.

Moreover, your Visionary is wondering why you have to be so brusque or cutting or how you can be so decisive with an incomplete picture and unawareness of all the possibilities. He may also fail to see and value you as part of a total package and may believe that you could continue to be responsible and on top of things without being what he sees as a worrier or a nag.

Various assessment measures, such as those you may have taken in management training courses, can help to depersonalize the conflict and expose both of you to seeing the Other as a consistent person. Consistent, fallible human beings have built-in blind spots (what some call “developmental needs”) that are part of their landscape rather than tactics designed to foil and irritate others. You and your counterpart may never see the world from the same point of view. However, you can come to appreciate the totality of each other’s strengths and realize that the foibles may be the price of gaining the strengths. You can move to a level of respect that lifts the tension from the relationship and the workplace. If you each have teams or subcultures that reflect your respective styles, it is even more crucial that you deal with this and avoid a company-wide schism.

Compensate with help

Once you begin to understand yourselves and each other, you have a better chance of negotiating roles that play to each other’s strengths: implementing safeguards that will protect mutually agreed-upon priorities, even if they are not the Visionary’s day to day focus; explore openness to using lower level staff to compensate for blind spots in either leader’s repertoire; and reopening the lines of communication so that problems can be averted and the partnership can really leverage the best of both worlds.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.