Leadership: The trusty sidekick

Being No. 2 keeps you out of the spotlight, though it’s not the easiest job around.

Warren Buffett has Charlie Munger, George W. Bush has Dick Cheney and Star Trek’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard has Cmdr. Riker. For nearly every successful corporate or political leader standing on centre stage, there is often a valued and trusted No. 2 waiting in the wings to make sure the big boss stays on track. But it’s not a role suited for every aspiring manager.

For many, being second-in-command is a good opportunity to be mentored by the boss and a necessary stepping stone before moving to the top. For others, playing second fiddle is actually preferable to the high-profile, high-pressure role of being the chief. Some executives genuinely prefer to operate out of the bright public spotlight, says Randall Craig, author of Personal Balance Sheet and president of Pinetree Advisors, a Toronto-based management consultant and executive coach. “Not everyone is comfortable with the exposure of being No. 1,” he says. “For a lot of people, the No. 2 position is a good fit for where they are in their careers. It’s the catbird seat, where you can see the whole organization and have influence to make the changes you want.”

Being close to where the ultimate decisions are made — for either the corporation as a whole, or even for a department or division within the organization — can be an intoxicating experience, says James Lukaszewski, founder and chairman of the Lukaszewski Group, a management-consulting firm based in White Plains, N.Y., and author of Why Should the Boss Listen to You? “There is a palpable thrill to being close to the boss, close to the levers of power and to be able to influence the decisions and direction of the organizations,” he says.

It’s not always good to be No. 2, though. Often the company’s chief operating officer — the person who is officially second on the company’s organizational chart — has the unenviable job of trying to execute on a CEO’s unattainable or ill-conceived strategic goals, or, perhaps worse, is in a powerless position with little or no influence over the actual corporate strategy. “In many companies, the COO job is the crummiest position in business,” Lukaszewski says.

To avoid this, executives who want to become the boss’s right hand and trusted strategic adviser must go beyond the corporate job description. All successful CEOs will have more than one person who can provide needed advice and strategic insight, because in many ways it’s a task that can be even harder than the CEO’s, says Lukaszewski. They need to know what is going on inside the company, and understand the competitive landscape in which the company operates. These advisers must also be prepared to provide clear, on-the-spot advice and options that can be quickly boiled down to the essentials and acted upon by the boss. “Most people can’t do that,” Lukaszewski says. “Too many advisers ask the boss a lot of questions and then come back with their advice — the boss wants answers right now.”

Successful No. 2s also need a high degree of selflessness, since much of their advice will be either rejected out of hand or altered to suit the boss’s needs or whims. “Bosses don’t want you to provide them with one solution, since they see themselves as the problem solvers,” Lukaszewski says. “They want you to provide them with a series of options from which they can chose the best solution.”

And don’t expect much applause for your efforts. After all, the boss is the one who gets to take a bow for any success a company achieves. Ultimately, the thanks will come from the leader who understands the value of having a trusty sidekick, says Lukaszewski. “The job of a good No. 2 is to help the company’s No. 1 become the No. 1 in his field, and stay No. 2.”