Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published December 29, 2010

The Sandwich CEO 

In this week’s series we’re examining the difference between positionship and leadership, and in particular, exploring the dynamic patterns that may indicate you or someone else is using their position to achieve things, rather than doing the hard work of actual leadership.Yesterday we looked at the first such pattern – what I call The Doughnut CEO. Today we’re looking at pattern #2 – The Sandwich CEO. Here’s what it looks like:

The Sandwich CEO


The Sandwich CEO is almost the opposite of the Doughnut CEO. While the Doughnut CEO is deliberately weakening the manager group’s ability to self-manage, the Sandwich CEO is instead caught between cliques of strong managers (a clique being any number from 1 upward) and spends most of his or her time holding the ring between them.

The Sandwich CEO has sidestepped their responsibility to provide leadership, and is instead using their position as CEO to resolve issues.

Why this happens: The most common circumstances that produce a Sandwich CEO are:

1. A new, weak CEO placed in a group of long-term, veteran managers.
This happens frequently (though not exclusively) in family companies, where a newly appointed second or third generation family member fails to bring with them the gravitas or respect that their progenitors had.

In its worst version the new CEO ends up as a puppet figure, with the real management being handled by one or more of the veteran managers, acting in essence as ‘regents to the king’.

2. Managers develop substantive subject matter expertise.
Over time one or more managers can gain such an intricate knowledge of important processes, key clients or other institutional expertise that they are able to exert sway over the CEO to an extent that leeches away the CEO’s authority. Over time the CEO is reduced to the ‘Sandwich’ role, merely being used by the managers to adjudicate on issues predetermined by the manager group.

3. Complexity overwhelms the CEO.
Allied to 2. above, sometimes the sheer complexity or running the business can take such a quantum step forward that the CEO becomes submerged in ‘adjudication’, and over time accepts that role, leaving leadership behind. This is often a by-product of PESTLE-based step growth.

What happens as a result:
Strong managers begin to dominate the weaker CEO and turn him or her into a weak Solomon: constantly having to adjudicate between them. Over time the managers form cliques, building fiefdoms of their own, leading to loss of both vision and alignment in the wider organization (although vision and alignment will be strong within the fiefs).

In the worst case, internal infighting becomes noxious, close to a civil war.

How to fix it:
If the CEO is inherently weak, likely he or she will need to be replaced. A strong CEO, once alerted to the position, can only change the dynamic by demoting or firing one or more of the over-strong managers.

(In an ideal world, an adult discussion between the newly-aware strong CEO and the strong manager group would lead to a cessation of infighting and a return to mature leadership, but in my experience this is rarer than a good Robin Williams movie).

Tomorrow: The Flying Goose CEO.

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