UK: How To Succeed As A Second-In-Command

Last Updated: 19 December 2011

You've just been hired (or promoted) to be your CEO's second-in-command. Do you know what it takes to survive and thrive in this uniquely challenging position?

The two essential tasks of a second-in-command

Most people occupying the position of second-in-command make the mistake of thinking that all they have to do is run the company well. In reality, your success as a second-in-command – regardless of whether your title is president, COO or head of operations – depends on your ability to accomplish two essential tasks: managing the business and managing your relationship with your boss.

Unlike the CEO, a second-in-command has to manage both up and down, which makes it an extremely challenging position. Obviously, you have to handle the day-to-day operations of the company; that's inherent in your position. But as second-in-command you also have to assume responsibility for managing your relationship with the CEO, because you have more at stake. He can fire you but you cannot fire him.

Don't assume the CEO will automatically manage the relationship, because if he doesn't – and very few of them do – it could cost you your job, regardless of how well you run the company.

Managing the relationship

To manage your relationship with your CEO and maximise your chances for success as second-in-command, we recommend an eight-step process.

1. Know the CEO's vision for the company

Most CEOs have a pretty good idea of where they want to take their companies. Where they tend to fall short is in communicating that vision to those who would help them achieve it. Worse, they tend to think that their people know and buy into the vision, when most don't have a clue that it even exists. If your CEO fails to communicate the vision, make a point to seek it out. Ask questions such as:

  • What is your vision for the company?
  • Where do you see us five years from now?
  • What will the company's market position be?
  • How do you see us expanding geographically?

Once you understand the vision, then focus on the financial targets, such as sales, profits and gross margins. From there, try to uncover what your CEO considers to be the real issues at the departmental level. These will help you to streamline your own priorities.

2. Help your CEO to discover his role in that vision

Now that you're running the company, the CEO has to figure out his new role in the company, which represents the source of his personal satisfaction. To determine the CEO's role, it is necessary to identify one or two driving needs the company has that the CEO is uniquely qualified to fill.

Usually, this new role includes something the CEO could not do as long as he had full responsibility for day-to-day operations. Equally important, the CEO must feel comfortable in this new role and understand the value that he brings to the company. Otherwise, he will be continually tempted to revert back to what he knows best, thereby undermining your position.

3. Help your CEO to do the right things

As COO or head of operations, your job is to see that things get done right. In his new role, the CEO needs to make sure that the company does the right things. You can help the CEO to focus with broad directional questions such as:

  • Where is our market going?
  • Why is it going there?
  • How is technology impacting our industry?
  • What are our competitors doing?
  • What can we learn from them?
  • What can we learn from customers?
  • What do customers want us to do?
  • Why does the market need us? Will those reasons be the same in three to five years?
  • Based on our answers to these questions, what should we be doing as an organisation?

As second-in-command, you can help your relationship with the CEO by questioning what the company is currently doing and what it ought to be doing. This forces the CEO to ask and answer these questions, which brings his attention up to a whole new level.

The trick is to make sure your CEO focuses on his new role and gets comfortable working from this higher level. Only then will he truly let go of the day-to-day stuff.

4. Define your role as the CEO sees it with precision and clarity

Does your CEO want you to play the role of leader or manager? Mistaking one for the other is a sure recipe for disaster.

If the CEO wants you to serve as a leader, he'll expect you to help chart the company's course and direction. In this case, he wants an operating partner – someone who feels a certain sense of ownership. This sense of partnership may or may not include an equity position, but it must include an owner's mindset and attitude towards the company.

In contrast, many CEOs do not want a leader, instead preferring a key manager. Managers focus on implementing a vision and strategy that the CEO has already crafted. This is more of a directive relationship – the CEO tells the manager what he wants done and when.

Both roles are valid. The objective is simply to ensure that what (or who) you are aligns with what the CEO wants. If it does not, the resulting conflict is generally fatal for the executive.

Problems can occur when the CEO says one thing but actually wants another. For your own protection, take the time to work out what he really wants and don't rely on what he says he wants. How? By observing how much of a leadership role your CEO takes and how he responds to your attempts at leadership. If he energetically pursues the vision and strategy and doesn't invite you into the process, you know that the role of leader is taken.

In addition to finding and feeling comfortable in his new role, the CEO must also have confidence that his second-in-command is getting the job done. To put his mind at rest:

  • Have very clear operational goals and a written plan to achieve those goals.
  • Demonstrate effective delegation: who will accomplish what, by when, and how they will do it.
  • Identify key milestones so that your CEO can monitor progress against the goals and see what has been done – not what has not!

The key is to be proactive in demonstrating your ability to get the job done. If your CEO sees that his second-in-command has a plan and that the plan is working, the temptation to meddle in the kitchen will be dramatically reduced.

5. Know your individual management styles

If your management style differs from that of your boss, do not try to adopt his style when managing the organisation. It won't feel authentic to you or to your people. Although there are many published lists of management styles, we believe that the following list will help you to align with your CEO.

  • Sharing responsibility. Having both of you manage the company or specific departments rarely works well, since it confuses the troops, making them generally less successful. Additionally, people tend to accept responsibility when things go right and point the finger of blame when things go wrong.
  • Coaching. Coaching leader/managers work with their people to determine what they need to accomplish and how to accomplish it. In general, they support their efforts and provide the resources needed to achieve their goals.
  • Supervising. Supervising managers tend to monitor activities more than results. This is often very hands-on, and usually includes detailed progress reports.
  • Holding people accountable. A manager who holds people accountable gives them deadlines and then backs off until the deadline draws near. This style works if the manager explains the ground rules and the definition of success from the very beginning.
  • Abdicating. The abdicating manager says "go ahead and do it", but does not give any feedback later on. At first, people may appreciate the green light. But abdication almost never works, as "success" can be easily misunderstood or redefined.

Coaching, supervising and holding people accountable will get the best results with your people. However, don't assume that your boss can or should use your style with you. Always be prepared to shift gears when dealing with your boss and get in sync with his style.

6. Establish a formal method of communication

As a company grows, the communication systems change. Early on, the CEO will be forced to rely less on their gut and more on data. Later, as they put other executives (like you) into place, they get even more detached from their favourite source of information – the people in the company.

Never get so wrapped up in running the business that you fail to keep your CEO in tune with what's going on in the company. Remember that, like most people, when the CEO does not feel he knows what is going on, he will assume the worst.

Early on in the relationship, find a reporting format that works for your CEO and make it a formal part of your relationship. Some CEOs will want more detail, some will want less. Some prefer verbal reports, others like written reports to take home and review. The key is to find which method works best for your boss and give it to him.

Regardless of the format, this type of report yields two major benefits. First, it forces you to keep on top of the company's key performance objectives, and second, it closes many of the gaps that often occur in the communication loop.

For example, for the CEO who likes brief, written updates, we recommend the "five-fifteen" format, whereby at five o'clock every Friday afternoon you give a 15-minute report that summarises activity for the past week and looks ahead to the next. This one-page report should include:

  • status of the three or four major objectives from the previous week
  • status of the three or four major objectives for this week
  • a quick review of key indicators
  • the significant win of the week
  • the most critical issue for the coming week and what you plan to do about it.

Remember that before you came along, your boss had his hands around the whole company. Now, to a large extent, he has to depend on you to know what's going on. When your boss asks for regular updates, consider it a blessing, not meddling. Look at it as an opportunity to check in with each other and make sure you're operating on the same wavelength.

7. Get feedback on your performance

Some CEOs are good at giving feedback; with others it's like pulling teeth. At the same time, some bosses have a knack for focusing on people's positive contributions while others see nothing but the downsides. Either way, you need to know what your boss is thinking. Don't be surprised, however, if you have to prime the pump in order to get any feedback out of him.

If your boss doesn't volunteer feedback on your performance as second-in-command, demand it. You need the feedback to assure your success, and, whether he's happy or unhappy with your performance, he will appreciate the fact that you forced him to get it off his chest.

Also, keep in mind that your CEO will evaluate you according to his priorities, not yours. If you want to succeed as second-in-command, make your CEO's priorities your own.

8. Redefine the organisational structure

When a CEO hires a second-in-command, the reporting lines in the organisation usually change dramatically. Therefore, a new organisational chart, which is really a communication diagram, needs to be published.

When redefining the organisational chart, make sure reporting structures are clear and specific. More important, make sure everyone in the organisation understands the changes. The quickest way to undermine your position and authority is to have people continually running to the CEO when they should bring problems and concerns to you.

Thriving as second-in-command

To enhance your ability to survive and thrive as a second-in-command, keep the following in mind:

  • Define company objectives and manage according to those objectives.
  • Identify the CEO's new role, highlight his contribution within the whole company, and assist him in his new role.
  • Keep the CEO informed. Bad news is OK as long as it doesn't come as a surprise.
  • Insist on holding to your meeting/communication schedules. Unless you communicate on a regular basis, you will both be working off assumptions.
  • Stretch your authority. If you're not sure whether it's your call or the CEO's, assume by default that it's yours.
  • Put yourself in your CEO's shoes from time to time. This will allow you to be a step ahead of – or at least in sync with – your boss.
  • Accomplish the business objectives you have set. This will demonstrate your ability to produce results and improve your chances of survival when tough times hit and everyone is scrambling.

Above all, pay attention to the CEO and manage the relationship. Don't allow yourself to so get buried in the nuts and bolts that you forget who you're working for.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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