Two In A Box Leadership

stevenson, herb

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week’s show features Herb Stevenson discussing “Two in a Box” Leadership. You may be wondering, what is “Two In a Box?” We are going to tell you all about that. He is the President and CEO of Cleveland Consulting Group, where he focuses on organizations that recognize that business is more than just a problem to be solved. So this innovative program of “Two in a Box” is where Herb works with co-presidents and where the synergy of one + one = three. We are going to get him to describe the process which can also help you in collaboration with your peers and partners. I think a lot of things we are going to talk about will overlap, but his experience that we will end up delving into is really working with co-presidents and how that happens.

He has designed and successfully led large systems changes including turn-arounds in nine failing financial institutions, as well as supported executives in a massive reorganization, planning, and implementation processes.

He specializes in executive development and succession planning. He is a certified coach as is Cathy and myself, and Herb is on the professional staff, faculty, of the post-graduate institute called Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. There he teaches both in the clinical and in the organizational centers. He is the chair of the post-graduate faculty of executive and organizational development, becoming an effective organization intervener.

Herb has supported clients from small firms to extremely large firms doing what he does best; integrating a lot of the organizational development concepts. Companies like Fanny Mae, The World Bank, First Merit Bank, HP, NASA, Blue Cross Shield, and AmeriGroup. It goes on and on. He’s had over 25 years working as a business executive. For 15 years he was the Executive Vice President of the Young and Associates, which is in Ohio, a banking consulting firm employing roughly 25 professionals and staff.

Herb also combines his native American heritage with his interest in human development. He’s the founder of the International Natural Passage for Men Program. It’s a nature-based leadership program that is comprised of four weekends. He does that over a year and explores leadership and also the male maturity.

He received his BA in economics and communication from Wright State in Ohio, and a MA in Organization Psychology with Diversity in Specialization from the Cleveland State University. He has a ton of different certifications, National Training Leadership Lab, he’s certified in the program that both Cathy and I graduated from, The College of Executive Coaching. He’s studied the Immunity to Change developed by Kegan and Lahey at the Harvard University. He’s also very familiar with Myers Briggs; a lot of the tools that Cathy and I and a lot of coaches want to use.

We are going to begin our conversation with Herb Stevenson. Here’s his website:

Herb we always like to start off just talking about leaders and who are some of the people that have influenced you the most?

Herb Stevenson: That’s an interesting question. I had to think about that a little bit. The ones that did the most to me or shifted me the most was clear back when I was in college. I was one of those; you hear these stories of a couple of professors taking somebody and putting them under their wing. There was a professor in communications, Dr. Saren and in economics, Dr. Wiggins. The two actually said we are going to teach you how to think, which ended up being a blessing because they actually helped me to look at theory and how to apply it and develop it.

My later years, obviously, some of the greats; Chris Argyris and others have impacted me. They have shaped how I focus and look at the world.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As you are speaking, Herb, I hear that there is a lot of professional people that have been highly influential in your life. Have there been people in your Native American background that have been influential? I’m just curious because I come from a Native American background myself.

Herb Stevenson: Sure. Yah, there are some elders that actually brought me in because I wasn’t raised in a Native American environment, even though where I grew up was in the middle of originally Indian country in Ohio. JT Garrett is one of the Cherokee elders and he helped me to integrate my heritage back into who I am. You are correct, it’s very much a part of me and people who know me and meet me the first time are usually surprised because my 3-foot long pony tail is not necessarily corporate.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: What’s really absolutely astonishing is you have such an energy and such a presence. When people meet you I think that they are astonished to begin with. Let me get us back on track here on the co-president process. I know Relly, you are dying to get in here too.

I really haven’t heard of a lot of co-presidents, but it seems like you have been working with them for quite some time across different organizations. What got you interested in the co-president process and how did you come up with the name, “Two In A Box?”

Herb Stevenson: Actually, “Two in A Box,” I’m not sure if I invented it or not. I am thinking somebody else did, because it has been used so frequently. If I did, I would surprise myself.

How I got into it is what happens often times to consultants; I had studied it years ago. Warren Bennis had come out with a book on it with David Heenan. But it talked about it; “Two in a Box” traditionally was the CEO and COO. Out of that there have been actually multiple examples. Hewlett Packard, obviously, the individuals not just the company were a “Two in a Box” per se. Michael Dell tried it for a while. There have been various efforts to do this.

What was unique about this goes back to the actual example I have been doing live for three years. I had a family owned business and the family was moving out of the leadership role and had two candidates vying for the position. In the conversations with the owner, he said my biggest concern is when I select one the other one will leave. So I said would you consider a shared leadership and we called it the “Two in a Box.”

Out of that process we really have refined this. It’s been a trial an error looking at theories and models until we actually came to where we are now which is two years of record success, both growth and profit wise.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We all know people who are presidents of organizations, have a lot of initiative, achievement orientation, often a big ego. What are some of the key challenges about having two presidents share the role?

Herb Stevenson: That’s probably the best question there is. Succinctly, buy in and commitment of the board, the same for the outgoing executive team, and then the two candidates. The reason I say that is I come from a systems perspective. If the board is not fully committed, or the outgoing executive team, or even the individual candidate—the way I say that commitment buy-in, I require a minimum of one year—this is not negotiable, this is how we are going to do it. Part of it comes down to, that I experience going through with these guys, we’ve all heard the great man theory, or there can only be one theory that permeates corporate culture. So, these guys get moving along after 20 years and they are wanting to take the helm, then we are going to attach you at the hip to another person. There’s a very visceral reaction. Buy in and commitment at all levels of the system are critical.

I’ll tell you a story of how much this permeates. In this specific situation as we moved along, I was able to work with other people in the organization. I discovered they had created a betting pool that it wouldn’t work. So even the employees couldn’t fathom how a “Two in a Box” situation could work and yet now as they are seeing it, and the actual results of it, it’s change the entire organization.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now, it’s interesting that you have talked about his visceral experience and how the employees kind of get involved in a negative way. In the little bit of experience that I have kind of read about in these situations, as well Herb, and I’d love for you to comment on this.

Often, this match that is supposed to be kind of a marriage made in heaven that makes the incoming president much better and gives him some oversight, can also create some disadvantages. You’ve just discussed a couple of them. How do you get that back on track? What do you do to help them see the merits of these challenges?

Herb Stevenson: Part of it is leverage their pride a little bit because to get them to want to buy-in and say let’s just try this or prove people wrong. Interestingly, some people would join into that process. The other side of it is, and this is a key piece as a consultant, I had to be the voice of continually bringing the message of what we are trying to do. As I talk in the various organizations, people are saying give it a chance and be open minded, don’t close your mind and automatically look to the negative. So I would start pointing out successes at the board level and in this case, the family level, to outgoing executives and also to employees. People then began to start telling me stories of the successes they were seeing and how meetings were handled differently, how effective they were at working together.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I’d image that has got to be huge. We talk about change and how you highlight the small wins, and all the doubt that this may create having two presidents. One of the things I know you’ve presented at different conferences like Linkage where we were, and this idea of co-leadership success. It has a lot of different ingredients. I know you’ve been well versed in the literature. What would you say are some of the key ingredients that really make this dyad successful?

Herb Stevenson: There’s a process, when we say the ingredients, of some things I really work on and that I have found are I call critical success, so I guess ingredients are the same thing. One is working with them around self-awareness. Now obviously both of you coming from your areas of the science of happiness and emotional intelligence, understand the research says that if the executive does not have self-awareness or the desire for it, the chances for being in the top 10% is very slim.

So, that’s one of the key places. When I start off I do a lot of assessments. I joke to them saying that we are going to do a series of assessments that are going to provide you more information about yourself than you want to know. Later they usually say it’s true.

But the second thing, which is a critical one, is around the concept of engagement. So if we don’t have engagement, especially during difficult times, there is no “Two in a Box.” Basically you have two individuals stuck in a box, but you do not get the value.

One of the earliest things I teach on a constant basis is: pause, reflect, and choose.

I actually even suggest that they put PRC on the monitor of their computer. A lot of it comes down to helping them to fully understand the impact of their position and also the impact that they have on each other. When I ask them to pause just a microsecond, but it’s to quickly witness themselves, the other person, the situation, and what is the best option for me to choose and then move on that situation. Tied to that, I normalize negative reactions. The differences are important, we’ll talk about that shortly, and so what I normalize is it’s okay to get mad, it’s okay to disagree, but what I want to know is how are you going to recover and repair the situation and or the relationship. That’s between each other as well as anybody else in the organization.

That’s become a collaborative approach that I use that has helped them and now has actually permeated the organization because others have seen the two of them do this and as a result, for lack of a better phrase, we have matured the organization and how we deal with conflict.

The next area that is critical is trust. We all talk about trust a lot but from executive point of view, the way I look at trust is going back to something that came out of Gestalt.  Gestalt has taught there can be no trust unless we learn how to constructively deal with conflict. Another way of saying it which will make it sound obvious is, if we do not have a constructive way to do conflict, then I’m always going to be slightly hesitant engaging in difficult subjects. We are not going to have a true dialogue.

So, one of the things I work with is to support them in how we create a constructive way to deal with conflict, put this in different terms. Most executives, depending on their style, will either revert to blunt force, power dynamics, or divide and conquer behaviors that lead to separation of the process.

Want to know more about “Two In A Box” Leadership? You can listen to the complete interview above, without commercials.


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