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by Scott Thurm | March 10, 2009

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It seems like a recipe for disaster: Give two managers the same responsibilities and the same title, and tell them to divvy up the work.

Yet companies as diverse as Intel Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. use the unlikely formula to run their day-to-day affairs and groom future leaders. These companies, and others such as Dell Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., say this "two-in-a-box" approach extends the reach of an operating unit and helps managers learn skills.

The strategy carries risks, including confusion, conflicting agendas and clashing egos. Many attempts to share power at the top of an organization -- such as the "co-chief executive" titles occasionally employed after mergers -- fail dramatically. Such power-sharing arrangements soured at Citigroup Inc. after it merged with Travelers Corp. and after the 1998 deal that created DaimlerChrysler Corp.

Practitioners say the technique, when used carefully, offers advantages. It can ease transitions, allowing managers to learn a job from an experienced hand. It can offer customers more access to senior-level executives. And it can help companies fill big jobs that require multiple skills. For a position requiring global travel, for example, putting two people in the job can ensure that one is on hand to deal with everyday issues.

"For me, it was quite effective, but it needs to be used judiciously," says Michelangelo Volpi, a senior vice president at Cisco, a San Jose, Calif., maker of computer-networking equipment. For 2.5 years, Mr. Volpi shared a job as head of Cisco's routing group with Prem Jain. Mr. Jain is an engineer. Mr. Volpi, although trained as an engineer, had spent a decade in business-development roles.

The two had "complementary skill sets," Mr. Volpi says. "I got exposed to all the stuff Prem knew," and vice versa. Now, Mr. Volpi has a broader assignment, overseeing four technology groups on his own. "I can do my job significantly better" because of the two-in-a-box experience, he says.

Academic research on the two-in-a-box technique is hard to come by. Robert Burgelman, a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business who has studied Intel's management, says it isn't surprising that technology companies would adopt the approach, because many management jobs at these businesses require a mix of technical and business skills.

"It's hard for one person ... to resolve all the uncertainties" in developing technology, Mr. Burgelman says. "If you have a good complementary team, you are reducing the chances of making fundamental mistakes."

That is how Intel most often uses the two-in-a-box approach, combining a technically oriented manager with a business-oriented one. The technique also is applied elsewhere at the Santa Clara, Calif., maker of semiconductors. Most senior executives, including Chief Executive Paul Otellini, have worked in the two-in-a-box arrangement at some point in their Intel careers.

Intel has been using the technique for so long that no one can remember how, or when, it began. Former Chief Executive Andrew Grove recalls pairing executives in the mid-1980s -- not always cheerfully. He recalls a 1989 car ride during which he told Craig Barrett, who later would succeed Mr. Grove as CEO, that he would share the job of running Intel's microprocessor group with one, or potentially two, other executives. "He was so unhappy I was afraid he was going to push me out of the car," Mr. Grove says. The arrangement didn't last long -- Mr. Barrett ran the unit with one other executive for a year. Still, Mr. Grove calls it "a worthwhile experiment. It probably helped Craig." Through an Intel spokesman, Mr. Barrett, now the company's chairman, confirms the story.

Managers who have worked in the two-in-a-box arrangement say it requires extra work and constant communication to ensure that employees, bosses and partners don't get mixed signals. "There were definitely kids trying to play mom against dad," says Deborah Conrad, who shared a vice president job for four years in Intel's sales-and-marketing group.

Ms. Conrad, who has a marketing background, shared the job with John Davies, who was more focused on sales. In practice, the two say, they tended to defer to the other's strengths, while learning pieces of the other's job. They minimized conflict by talking constantly. Ms. Conrad recalls a rough patch when she insisted that the group, which then included more than 500 employees, improve its cohesiveness through a process that she likens to "group therapy." Mr. Davies would have preferred to spend more time with customers, but he ultimately agreed to go along.

Last spring, Ms. Conrad left the shared post to lead a small group coordinating Intel's initiative with Apple Computer Inc. That, too, has required adjustments. "It's definitely different not thinking, 'I wonder what John's opinion is on this,' " she says.

Two-in-a-box arrangements aren't limited to technology companies. Goldman Sachs has a long tradition of what the investment bank calls "co-heads" at every level, including the top. John Whitehead and John Weinberg ran Goldman together in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Rubin and Stephen Friedman in the early 1990s, and Jon Corzine and Henry Paulson for a brief period in the late 1990s.

Mr. Paulson has been the sole CEO since Goldman's 1999 initial public offering. The company has two or more people running its four biggest units -- equities, fixed income, investment banking and asset management. The technique is used so often at Goldman that the securities firm offers training classes in job-sharing.

Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor, says the two-in-a-box approach works at Goldman because it is integrated with other elements of corporate strategy and culture, including compensation and promotion. The technique is "quite complicated," he says. "If you just put two executives together, you will destroy value rather than create value."

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