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John Addison and Richard Williams served for 15 years as co-CEOs of Primerica Inc., a Georgia-based financial services company that today ranks as the 12th largest direct selling company in the world, with 2015 net sales of $1.41 billion. They led the company through a transformative period that culminated in an initial public offering in 2010. Today, Addison serves as President and CEO of Addison Leadership Group, Leadership Editor for SUCCESS magazine and serves on the board of directors for both Primerica and LegalShield. Williams is the non-executive board Chairman of Primerica as well as a member of USANA’s Board of Directors. DSN Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Lauren Lawley Head sat down with the men to discuss the power of partnerships on a company’s executive team.
DSN: You two had a partnership at Primerica that really benefited that business. Where did the idea originate to have a co-CEO setup?
RW: I think we had proven ourselves over the prior couple of years—prior decade frankly—that we could work really well together and that we both were extremely confident in our spheres—John in the marketing and inspiration and me in the operational and financial, and after so many years of us being the go-to people, no other choice was even considered. I think it was a very natural progression.
DSN: Let’s discuss what partnership means at the executive level—what does that look like for you?
RW: At any management level, it’s critical that the team acts as partners and has respect for one another no matter what the reporting relationship is. In the partnership that John and I shared we both really cared about the organization, and we were both willing to put the organization above our own individual feelings and accomplishments. There was a tremendous respect for each other. We have very different skill sets, which in some respects made it a lot easier. John did what he did and I did what I did, but we didn’t do it in silos. We worked together. There’s not a single decision that John made that we didn’t chat about or that I made that we didn’t chat about. We had a common vision for the company.
JA: It’s critical that if you want an effective partnership you have to have a common vision, a common purpose and control of your personal ego. I believe either one of us would have been fine as a CEO, but together we were better than we would have been individually because we had very complementary skill sets and a shared vision, and we controlled our egos. Within that context, we accomplished our professional and personal goals.
RW: I agree. Checking an ego means being able to read the other person and understand what’s important, what’s not important and being able to do that naturally. John and I are very different people in many respects at the end of the day, but we do like each other; we like talking and working together, and that friendship allows you to read the other person and therefore know when you need to check your ego.
DSN: I appreciate you sharing that because checking your ego is much easier to say than to do. Do you have advice about how to do that?
RW: Yes, we had a process. The process was we talked all the time. When we were out of the office we talked on the phone. Otherwise, we were in each other’s offices all the time. We had a continuous communication about what was important, what the dynamics were, and through that continuing conversation we evolved to a decision.
It isn’t that you sit down across the desk from each other and think “who’s going to win this time.” You humble your argument and adjust your positions, because you have that give and take with each other, communicating all the time. If you are doing that, you jointly arrive at a decision place from conversation and discussion.
JA: If I was advising somebody today on whether they should we have co-CEOs the first question I would ask is what is their relationship now, because our relationship evolved through a decade of working incredibly close together when we had a lot of different CEOs to deal with. Rick and I had a way of working together that was very natural. It wasn’t like “now we’re in this role, how is it going to work?”
So if you have two people, and they’ve never really worked together before and they don’t have a deep relationship, that’s not going to work. It has to be a relationship where you understand each other and you know each other’s personality—you know what’s important to each other and that sort of thing.
DSN: Do you feel that having that co-CEO role slowed down decision making?
RW: It would not delay longer than what was needed, but we had very different styles. John makes quick, intuitive decisions, and I make long analytical decisions; I’d never come to a conclusion and John would jump to a conclusion. Our styles, because they were different, forced John to slow down and forced me to speed up. So I think we came to a decision at the right time.
JA: We made better decisions because of each other. If it had been just me as CEO, we’d be constantly cleaning things up, I would imagine. I mean, I’m very intuitive and I will make a decision. Rick will study and know every detail of something, so I made him go faster and he made me go slower, but I think as a result of that we made much better decisions and we had a pretty good batting percentage of getting things right.
DSN: One of things you mentioned earlier was how more than 10 years of working together really helped drive the success that you had as co-CEOs. How can executives foster that spirit of partnership throughout their executive teams, even if they are not having formalized co-positions?
JA: One of the most important things I would say, if you want that to develop, is to try. It’s very important to create an environment where executives have a relationship and like each other. Where they can be candid with one another. Usually the person who runs marketing just thinks the finance people say no, and the person that runs financial thinks the marketing people just blow money. When you create an atmosphere where the two of them are collaborative and try to work together and do things together you are much more effective than just having one person saying, “I want to advertise on the Super Bowl for $50 million,” and the other person saying, “you idiot.”
RW: I very much agree. It has to be clear that the objective of the organization is not functional; the objective of the organization is project-wide. Therefore having one function win over another doesn’t move anything forward; what has to happen is the project has to get done and get done successfully. And instill that in your teammates that you’re not an arbiter of functions, you are making a decision based upon accomplishing the objective.
DSN: If you could share a piece of advice for the younger executives interested in pursuing those higher levels of executive leadership, what advice would you have for those folks?
RW: I think they need to always do their best, no matter where you are in the organization. If you’re not doing your best at that point in time, even if you think it is not very meaningful, people will see you in that vein. So you’ve always got to do your best, no matter what you are doing. You’ve got to be willing to take on responsibility and speak up. Not inappropriately, but you’ve got to let people know you’ve got a view. You should consider that view before you enunciate it, but you should let people know you can add value. You should also build relationships with other people. With those relationships, you’ll get more done, they’ll get more done, and you’ll move up the ladder.
JA: I would add that in the world we’re in today with all the social media and stuff, we’re becoming more and more narcissistic as a society. No. 1, you need to realize you have to work like crazy on controlling your ego and realize that none of us are that big of a deal, whether you’re the CEO or you’re in the mail room, so work hard on improving yourself, on being able to get along with people. In life, learn when something is a big deal and when it’s not a big deal, and if it’s not, let it go. Don’t build grudges and victim mentalities. Realize you are a part of the solution or you are part of the problem. I believe long-term improvement is incremental, getting better each day and trying to be a part of the solution. I think if you show up and you are positive and honest, you’ve beat most people just by doing that. And if you work really hard, ultimately, I believe that is going to pay dividends to you.