Yin and yang

Apr 04, 2021

Problems can arise when two leaders have distinctly different philosophies about how to run a business.

I think I first heard of yin and yang when I was watching The Karate Kid, or maybe it was The Ninja Turtles – I’m not sure. But its ancient origins in Chinese philosophy highlight the simplicity and perhaps complexity of the idea. It “is a concept of dualism, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent and may give rise to each other.” I recently encountered yin and yang with a client’s management team and want to take some time to better understand how this concept matures in an organization and highlight some potential issues with this dynamic. In this instance, Yin and Yang (not real names) are the founders of a 10-year-old AEC firm that has doubled its revenue the last three years and tripled its profit margins in that same period of time. It’s been a truly amazing run for them.

When we first met with these guys, they referred to the yin and yang of their relationship almost immediately. As we did our management interviews with the next tier leadership, it became apparent that there were two distinctly different sides of the house and that their references to yin and yang were real. Though the division in the firm had naturally congealed partly because of differences in job functions, there was a deeper philosophical divide that would present structural challenges as we looked at leadership succession. The yin and yang had not translated to their successors. In fact, the complementary nature of their relationship was creating an opposite and contrary reaction amongst their staff. The two sides were almost pitted against one another.

When two leaders have distinctly different philosophies about how to run a business, it can be difficult. This is a fact. We have to find ways around the differences and highlight common opportunities. Sometimes, personality and leadership assessments (like Clifton StrengthsFinder) are great tools for teams to gain alignment. In this instance, we used the Clifton program and it became clear how these guys found such a groove with different skill sets and strengths. On paper and in practice they are perfect complements to one another. They have complementary skill sets and perspectives, even though they often disagree on how the business should fundamentally be run. They have been able to disagree and move forward with their business and balance disagreements with the ability to find common ground on behalf of the well-being of the firm.

At the top of an organization, there may be a level of understanding and respect between owners or founders that does not translate to the next tier. Visible differences of opinion at the top can morph into real tangible divisions amongst staff. As a founder or directional leader of a firm, beginning to phase out of your professional career is tough for a variety of reasons. The legacy you leave behind is bound in the relationships you’ve built with peers and staff but it’s also deeply rooted in your clients and the communities you serve. As you leave the organization, you must tend to both the internal and external relationships well in advance of your departure. Cultural disruption is one potential outcome of leadership transition and mitigating the impacts of this disruption should be a top priority from leadership. This starts with the top of the organization and rallying around a set of core values and a mission and vision for the firm to follow.

We were initially charged with finding a replacement for one of the outgoing founders but came to the conclusion that no one person was going to replace this co-founder and that we needed to re-evaluate the overall leadership and corporate governance structure. This has led to a new strategy for the ongoing management of the firm and marks the beginning of a new era. Oftentimes firms want to try to find a way to recreate the sauce that thrived in a previous generation. The reality is you’re probably not going to find it, so you have to take the opportunity to make a new sauce. Succession planning is tricky and takes lots of time. Keep this in mind, regardless of where you are in your career, because this dynamic will inevitably impact you at some point. And always remember: wax on, and wax off.

Will Swearingen is director of ownership transition advisory services at Zweig Group. He can be reached at wswearingen@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.