It is said that a house divided against itself cannot stand and yet there are many cases that disprove the famous phrase that was coined by Abraham Lincoln, parsing the Book of Matthew. Internal division can even be turned into a positive if the combatants are willing to draw a line under their differences and agree to disagree.
Of course, when it’s bad it can be very bad and what is often remarkable and quite consistent in hearing stories of troubled relationships in the senior ranks of business is the childishness exhibited by some executives. After the mega-merger between two IT giants back in the late 1990s one of the early signs of a cultural mismatch was a battle for the best parking spots outside offices in a prime location. At one point this even led to an exchange of blows. I also know of a CEO and COO who fell out over the CEO’s usurping of the COO’s PA. And of course there have been many cases where romantic affairs have caused no end of trouble.
Boys — and it usually is the male of the species — will be boys, and woe betide the boy who moves the other’s vroom-vroom or chases the prettiest girl.
I’ve met many CIOs who have switched jobs because they just couldn’t hack it with the boss. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. To have differences is human and the disagreement only becomes destructive when resentments fester to the detriment of company performance.
In sport there have been many cases of players who do not get along. Think of Phil Tufnell declining England cricket captain Michael Atherton’s congratulations after taking a wicket, or the seeming issues today between Mark Webber and his Red Bull Grand Prix team. But this needn’t be a negative: at Manchester United in the 1990s it was no secret that Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole did not see eye to eye. The state of the relationship could have been a problem given that both were strikers and yet no football fan would have been able to detect a problem as the two dovetailed their forward play whenever called upon. They might not have been a full-time double act but United won a famous Treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League with the pair in harness.
Or, moving the needle to the arts, consider another famous double act that needed each other like an oyster needs grit, Van Gogh and Gauguin. DH Lawrence and wife Frieda were others that created something wonderful out of jarring conflict and there have been many more from Lennon and McCartney to, arguably, the current UK Prime Minister and his coalition government’s deputy leader.
I was speaking to a CTO recently who had left his job because he had what he described as a problematic relationship with his CIO. However, my mind went back to a slightly bizarre interview I did several years ago with a CTO who said openly that he loathed his CIO. When I asked whether this had made for a dysfunctional working environment, he said no. The CIO was a word that, if used here, that might offend my Aunt Maud, but he actually enjoyed the cut and thrust of the disagreements and never doubted that the seeming absence of aligned thinking was intended as a snub or political manoeuvre.
The fact that the two had very different lifestyles (the CIO was a bachelor wine connoisseur with a significant property portfolio while the CTO was a beer-loving part-time rugby referee with a large family to maintain) and spent no time together socially was largely irrelevant he felt, because their work together was top notch. Whenever the CIO deigned to proffer a compliment the CTO knew that it had been hard earned and there was a grudging mutual respect between the pair.
This, it seems to me, is the way to go. We can’t like everybody but with a little consideration and compromise, we can make a virtue out of the most unpromising relationships.