Great bosses get applauded, but an able No. 2 doesn’t get much attention.
When done right, though, the deputy’s job can be a rich and rewarding role. It takes finesse to make it a winning hand. The role offers access without having to take the spotlight or the main blame when things go wrong. The most-fulfilled deputies, however, also challenge the boss, call out mistakes, and still carry out the leader’s plan.
doesn’t need the spotlight to be motivated. She derives her rewards from knowing things are getting done, the organization is running smoothly and her colleagues’ morale is good, says Ms. Haynes, deputy executive director of a Chicago nonprofit.
She doesn’t confuse that with being selfless. A deputy can’t succeed without the boss’s support. On a previous job as a No. 2, Ms. Haynes says, her boss hampered her work by withholding information. In her current post, her boss
executive director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, gives her latitude to oversee operations and programs for the group, which supports a network of student debate groups nationwide.
The second in command should be prepared to step in for the CEO when necessary. “You have to be able to take on anything the leader takes on, without having had all the experience,” says
Toronto consultant and co-author of a book on cultivating effective followers.
A deputy’s skills also should complement those of the leader. “If No. 1 is strong in thinking at 30,000 feet, then you’d better be the one who’s thinking at ground zero,” says
a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched star performers at all levels of management. “You get less ego-stroking. You’re not seen as a leader. For somebody who has those psychological needs, the No. 2 role can be very hard.”
built a strong internal network while serving as deputy chief operating officer of Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., for six years. “You have to talk to people, and even more important than talking is listening” for problems that need attention, says Mr. Quintana, who is currently an interim deputy director at the lab.
Mr. Quintana’s boss,
who joined Argonne as chief operating officer, says he valued Mr. Quintana’s internal connections and his ability to keep him informed about day-to-day issues at the lab. When a problem arose several years ago with tracking inventories of materials, Mr. Quintana alerted him to it and suggested possible solutions, says Mr. Kearns, who is currently Argonne’s acting director.
“Being able to bring bad news forward is a critical aspect of the role, and also giving some early thought to the first step or two toward a solution,” Mr. Kearns says.
A deputy shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the boss.
president of Catania Oils, an Ayer, Mass., edible-oils processor and packer, says he is more reserved than his outgoing brother Stephen, an executive vice president and the No. 2 executive, but sees the contrast as a strength. “We feed off each other in generating ideas, and we have fun doing it,” Joseph says.
Stephen says Joseph’s analytical approach to decision-making drives him crazy sometimes. “He’ll just spreadsheet and graph a question to death, and I’m like, ‘Come on, can we make a decision already?’” He sometimes sees later, however, that his hasty decision would have been wrong. “We challenge each other,” Stephen says, “and in challenging each other, everybody wins.”
A deputy can have a major impact by working quietly behind the scenes. Rosy Pal worked her way up from a part-time cake-decorating job to the No. 2 spot at Saisethsons Hospitality Group Inc., a Toronto franchisee with 41
restaurants. Ms. Pal, who is director of operations, measures her own success partly by tracking how many employees she coaches each week, teaching them the skills they need to rise in the ranks.
credits Ms. Pal for the company’s ability to promote 90% of its managers from within. “She has the ability to bring people up and patiently teach them step-by-step,” he says.
The Dos and Don’ts of Being No. 2
Be willing to bury
Take satisfaction in
Promote the boss’s plan even when you disagree
Tell the boss when he or she makes a mistake
Protect the boss from
Expect glory or praise
Be afraid to challenge
Try to compete with
Expect to build a career
on being No. 2
Try to accomplish goals that differ from the boss’s
It is also important to figure out how serving as No. 2 fits into your career plans, Mr. Quintana says. Ask yourself: “How long do you want to stay in the role? What do you want to do after that?” he says.
For some, it is a launchpad. The pool of experienced No. 2 executives is often the first place recruiters look for candidates for top jobs, Dr. Kelley says.
For others, it is a lifestyle.
was the No. 2 executive at six different companies earlier in his career. Being free to coach employees and help companies run more smoothly were among the biggest rewards, says Mr. Lassman, who is now a professor of organizational management at Carnegie Mellon University.
“You have to get rid of your ego. You have to be comfortable not getting all the credit—but you also typically won’t get all the heat either” if things go wrong, Mr. Lassman says.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org
WORK & FAMILY MAILBOX
Q: You’ve written about managing a demanding boss. How do you decide where to draw the line—when a manager’s demands are truly unreasonable?—K. J.
A: Demands that seem reasonable to one person can be unacceptable to another. Some employees comply with demands because of a business crisis or a customer’s emergency. They justify working extremely hard as a way to meet team goals, advance their careers, earn a bonus or stretch their skills. For these people, the rewards are compelling enough.
Others refuse because they see extreme demands as a symptom of poor management or a boss’s selfish ambition. They may fear that complying will hurt the quality of their work. Or they see the demands as unfair, questioning why they’re repeatedly asked to make sacrifices when co-workers aren’t.
For others, the personal costs are too high. The boss may be acting as if all their time belongs to the company. Or the employer’s values may clash with their own, forcing them to neglect family or loved ones or degrade their physical health or quality of life. Employees have to weigh these factors for themselves, and may make different decisions at different stages of their careers.
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Appeared in the Apr. 19, 2017, print edition as ‘When Second Is Best The Do’s & Dont’s of the ultimate number two SECOND WORK FAMILY MAILBOX.’