All too often, the relationships between chairpersons and CEOs are filled with tension that affects the entire organization. If you want to create a more productive atmosphere, senior leaders need to identify the source of their issues so they can build a new bond that’s based on trust and respect. That’s where Isabelle Nüssli, the author of Cockfighting, comes in.

After she lived through her own toxic chairperson-CEO scenario, she decided to uncover the roots behind these complicated relationships. She interviewed more than 70 chairpersons and CEOs, and that is what she shares in her book Cockfighting.

In this episode, we go over her findings on the conscious and unconscious drivers of conflict. The things that intensify those conflicts. If you’re ready to break through the classic Chairperson-CEO conflict, and build a new partnership that empowers your productivity, innovation and success. This is the episode for you.

Isabelle Nüssli: I spoke to other people in senior positions, and I learned that I was far from alone. Most of them have experienced similar turmoil but had never spoken about it. Interestingly, it seems that admitting issues of this nature are almost a taboo—admitting that is weak management or weak power structure or weak leadership structure.

That’s when I realized that something could and actually should be done about it. That’s when I started with my process and ultimately led me to the writing of the book Cockfighting.

Charlie Hoehn: Was this primarily written for the CEO and Chairperson relationship or is this a book that’s also for the CEO and the assistant relationship, you know? Any sort of dynamic like that?

Isabelle Nüssli: It’s a very good question. I actually started off writing it in context with the chairperson-CEO relationship or conflict. The more deeply I dove into it, the more I realized that most high level relationships, especially on power and exposure, ultimately leadership are involved, it affects these relationships too. The CCCC—this Chairperson-CEO Collaboration Contract—can be applied by other business couples.

Conflict Background

Charlie Hoehn: Can you kind of lay out what kind of problems you’ve seen with the CEO-Chairperson relationship when they’re in so much conflict? What does this do to them on a personal level and on a professional level?

Isabelle Nüssli: Yes, absolutely. First of all, if it stretches yourself so much, you learn a lot about yourself. I remember in my case, I was lucky that I was able to sleep well. It was like short nights too, but I did sleep well.

However, amongst the 70 chairpersons and CEO I interviewed, there were quite many that don’t sleep well. Quality of sleep is a very strong indicator of your health or wellbeing. On a personal level, there’s psychological pain, so the doubts and the fears and loneliness. It’s cold and rough up there. That’s definitely something that’s usually kept under the covers. It’s not spoken about.

“You can’t show vulnerability, you cannot expose weakness to others.”

That’s actually something that gets to your health. That often spills over into family life. I see business family like a three-legged chair. The three legs are connected, and all need to be healthy in order for the chair to stand properly and to be stable.

Suffering can lead to health issues as mentioned—sleeping disorders or physical pain, and of course worse case too. That’s more common than expected or seen because there’s so much pressure. Leadership is supposed to be shining, you got to be terminator, invincible. No, first of all, it’s not true and second of all, it’s not possible, right? That’s more on a personal level but on a professional level, I’ve seen and been told many times how much it harms company’s culture.

People’s engagement and productivity and again, ultimately, company’s performance. Because almost all of the Chairpersons and CEOs that I interviewed said that this relationship is absolutely crucial for a company. However, in most of the cases, maybe two third of the cases, these relationships don’t work well. Which I think is alarming because as mentioned, it harms people on a personal level but also professionally.

Birth Order Insight

Charlie Hoehn: Let’s get into the actual meat of the book. What are the drivers of these conflicts that they have?

Isabelle Nüssli: Yes, there are. From what I found, there are three conscious and five unconscious drivers and two intensifiers that drive these types of conflict.

The three conscious drivers are impaired trusts or lack of role clarity, and role models/anti-role models. The five unconscious drivers that actually undermine the conscious drivers are family origins, the patterns and behaviors that stem from family dynamics and childhood, the time—amount of time these two leaders spend together, very crucial—then corporate governance, how it’s lived, how it’s applied, transference, and power balance.

Which brings us into two intensifiers, birth order and self-awareness. It was really fascinating to see that almost all of the interviewees were functional firstborns. Isn’t that incredible?

Almost all of the 70 chairpersons and CEOs, which I found out only around week six or seven.

Charlie Hoehn: Why do you think that is?

Isabelle Nüssli: We have to go all the way back. It starts with parental attention, and of course parental attention is limited. Firstborns means biological firstborns but also only children that are considered super firstborns, or younger children with an age gap of at least five years. Also those that stepped into a role of a firstborn or had to because of unusual conditions. These all are considered functional firstborns.

They receive a lot of parental attention, up to 3,000 more hours of quality time, and only children even more so. In a way, it’s this mix between being a miracle, joy, but at the same time, fear emerges. Fear of doing something wrong. Since functional firstborns spend a lot of time with their parents, this extra time makes actually parents or older siblings become their role models, and parents aren’t always perfect.

Perfectionism is one of the traits that are very distinct to functional firstborns. Each child occupies a specific niche within the family. That’s why the second born usually is so very different. They try a lot of questions, how come. The third child is different again, because the children look for their own niche.

“Each birth order rank has specific traits and characteristics.”

With functional firstborns, they need to be perfect, they are authority and rule bound, they’re determined, they’re reliable, logic-, analytical-, task-, and achievement-oriented which helps them rise up to the top-end leadership positions.

There’s a lot of research out there that show the over-representation of functional firstborns in many areas, for example, in leadership positions amongst students and professors at universities and business, US presidents, Prime Ministers, females with doctoral degrees, and Nobel Prize winners.

Aware That You’re Not Aware

Charlie Hoehn: You also said there’s a lack of self-awareness and there’s toxic combinations, let’s dive into lack of self-awareness.

Isabelle Nüssli: Yes. I realized in my interviewees that some leaders were more self-aware than others. The ones that had coaching or even therapy were more comfortable speaking about their upbringing, about their strengths and weaknesses. Then there was another group amongst the ones that had life changing experiences—for example, a loss of a parent or a severe setback or something. Somewhere very self-aware and others less so. Differentiating factor was the active work of personal reflection. Self-awareness is absolutely key, which means stepping back, getting the balcony perspective, looking at the scene from above, instead of just acting from the stage.

It really helps us understand what are my patterns, what are my drivers, how do they influence the way I act and behave, how do they influence my relationship with my counterpart, and where do they originate?

“Developing self-awareness does not happen overnight.”

It needs time to step back and reflect. It actually can be addictive and really interesting to find out how supposedly unrelated events impacted or work together and form our drivers now.

Charlie Hoehn: Gosh, self-awareness. You think you have it until you don’t. Until you’re forced to realize that you don’t.

Isabelle Nüssli: I had one chairperson, for example, who realized that he had a rather lower level of self-awareness, and he found out that he was known as being sarcastic by the workforce. He found out later, his employees kind of were afraid of him because of his penchant for needling others and making cutting remarks and even sometimes verbally attacking others.

He did create the climate of fear in which nobody dared to show weaknesses and vulnerability. But he was not aware of his behavior.

Very often, people get labeled, you know? He doesn’t delegate or he’s sarcastic or she’s risk averse. So this chairperson taught me that he grew up with seven siblings. So it was a lot of competition, especially for parental attention.

Communication that he experienced was quite harsh and rude, and he found out that he had to make compromises on his sensitivity in order to develop a thick skin. I did work with him afterwards for a few weeks, and once he became aware of his negative behavior patterns and the responses that he triggered in others, he could take responsibility for his actions and improve upon them.

But the first step is actually the psychological awareness or self-awareness.

Charlie Hoehn: Self-awareness that you don’t have self-awareness.

Isabelle Nüssli: Often it is an impending crisis that brings people to a higher level of self-awareness. But it does not have to be that way. There are tools to improve self-awareness—quite a few of them.

My recommendation is don’t wait for this impeding crisis to help you open your eyes. You cannot lose anything if you become more self-aware.

Charlie Hoehn: What is a good test for somebody to determine if they lack self-awareness?

Isabelle Nüssli: There is one of the most or maybe the efficient one is ask your family and friends. Ask your close environment. They know you very well, so they are a very good reality check.

Another one is any good coach can help you with that, but you can do a lot of work yourself just by stepping back. It can get uncomfortable. We’re not perfect, and we are not supposed to be perfect.

By the way, good role models are not perfect either. They are human.

Toxic Combinations

Charlie Hoehn: What do you mean by toxic combinations?

Isabelle Nüssli: It’s all the combinations of consciousness, especially on conscious drivers. So seldom you have all of them play into relationships. For example, there is an empiric trust between two parties. Both actually say it’s a very important value. Trust is very important.

However, the way they approach build trust can be very different. For example, one of them grew up in a family where trust was very, very important. So she gave the benefit of the doubt. Trust and then see what happens.

And then the other person also believed or said trust was very important to her, but she grew up in a family where there was a lot of mistrust. So she needs to see that trust granted immediately. She needs to see proof in action in behaviors of others.

So both think or believe trust is important, which of course it is for our relationship to flourish, but they have different approaches. It leads to a certain type of mistrust, because they have different approaches which leads them to spend less time together.

It is more comfortable not spending time together if either you don’t trust well or you see that the power game emerges. So it is easier to just avoid. However, reduced time spent together leads to impaired quality of communication and also to reduce the communication. You communicate less or maybe write down even more, which definitely does not add to the healthy relationship.

So these for example are two elements, and then add any others. They have organizational rules and functional charts present. They both have a clear understanding of their role as well as the one of the counterpart. However, it is too rare that these roles are discussed out. What does it really mean?

“How do we as a business couple deal with division of power?”

Do we really have our understanding of our roles aligned, and if not, we better talk about it and lay it out. It is not about the what, what are the roles—corporate governance often falls short in this context—but it is about the how, how are these roles assumed.

So then you have seen, then you get the idea of the combination of these different drivers which makes it even harder to understand what’s really going on and to get a handle of this pattern of compounding interest in terms of trying those drivers.

Working with Isabelle Nüssli

Charlie Hoehn: I know that you work and coach these types of leaders in helping them with this. What does your process typically look like?

Isabelle Nüssli: So as a coach you have a tool set, a tool box. This is not like maybe it works, maybe not. It really is like any other profession. If you refurbish your house and you look for a carpenter, you’d trust his or her skills. So with a coach, a good coach, the same holds true.

When I enter into discussion, I see very quickly by the way the person maybe pauses and speaks where I might ask further questions. There’s a difference, and it is not good or bad. It is just a difference between coaching and consulting.

As a coach, you ask questions and you would like your coachee or the person across the table to find his or her own answer. Because with this epiphany, and it starts with an epiphany, they own the moments of discovery, which is actually quite exciting to see but also to experience.

They want to learn more about it. It is about opening up, it is about trusting that person across from you. If you don’t trust a coach or there is no chemistry for whatever reason, you might find some of the reasons in the book. I just don’t go with it. It needs to be a good fit.

Charlie Hoehn: What kind of results have you seen?

Isabelle Nüssli: One was interesting. Usually we start off talking about business. Of course leaders are very comfortable talking about business. But then I didn’t ask very personal questions. I just ask about whether they had siblings and where they grew up, and in the very end, one CEO—he was 59 or 60—he just tapped his forehead and said, “Oh my goodness! I am now realizing I am still proving parents. I am still proving my parents. I really had tried to be the leader. I have been a hard-driven perfectionist, just go-go-go and no downtime. It just keeps going and going and proving and proving the world, but actually I am still proving my parents. Maybe this pattern has become unproductive.”

He is not the first one. That’s just normal. Behavioral patterns are neither good nor bad. They’re just the way they are. It’s not about blaming parents at all, because they tried their best.

“They brought their own experience and pattern with it.”

It is just about pausing and trying to find out, “Okay, what drives me? Why is this important.”

So that is one that’s really beautiful to see but also when you see that someone walks away like straight up and full of energy. Or when the eyes sparkle or when he or her has an insight, an epiphany, it still has a second part. How do you bring it to life? We have an epiphany, but how do you really take action on it? That is the second step that is important to take. But it’s to be able to see that energy gets released and that they take themselves a bit lighter.

A Challenge for Listeners

Charlie Hoehn: I’ve got two more questions for you. The first one is how can our listeners best get in touch with you, if they want to work with you or just reach out and say thanks for the podcast? How can they follow you if you are on social media.

Isabelle Nüssli: Yes, they can find me on LinkedIn, first name and last name is there. I have my own website They can send me an email [email protected] and yes, I really look forward to getting in touch and to exchanging experiences and ideas.

Charlie Hoehn: And the final question is give our listeners a challenge. What is the one thing they can do from your book this week that will have a positive impact?

Isabelle Nüssli: So it was actually a question I ask or I end up asking every single interview—how do you want to be remembered? And then as a second question, a follow up question, is are you living your life according to how you want be remembered?

And this goes to the insight that you get you can apply in business but also in personal life with your families and friends—because it is very powerful. Not always we live our life according to how we want to be remembered.

So the question is are you willing to invest in the improvement of any relationships that you have—for example, focusing on business—and if so, just pause for a minute, step back, and get on the balcony and look at the scene from the balcony instead of acting from the stage only.

Just take a few minutes to reflect and see what is happening.