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Who’s On First? What’s on Second? (Being Second in Command Takes Serious Skills)

April 6, 2016 Damon Maida

Abbott-and-Costello-publicity-photo-300x209In any organization, there are people in charge and other folks who do the work, right? Not so simple. Being in charge carries with it stressors and worries that other positions do not – especially for business owners. There are too many things that keep them up at night to count, and without a solid second in command, the leader of the organization’s life can become chaotic, unhappy and exhausting. She can begin to feel like the business owns her, rather than that she owns the business. And that’s not good for anyone.

Make the Noise Go Away – The Power of an Effective Second in Command is a quick and fun read by Larry G. Linne with Ken Koller that examines this dynamic and calls out the key elements needed in a second in command. You might think it’s all about what the “Second” does for the “First,” but it’s more than that: Without an engaged First working with the Second to make the relationship work smoothly, the relationship will not work for either.

The story takes on parable form and is set at a mountain cabin, where two executives, Jim (the “First”) and Brett (the “Second”) have gathered to figure out what the elements are that make their working relationship so effective. What is it exactly that the Second is doing in collaboration with the First that helps take away “the noise” – the numerous thoughts and stressors that can fill a First’s brain?

Here are some of my favorite lessons:

Use Upward Communication

A Second should discover what is most important to the First – whatever creates the most “noise,” whether it’s client satisfaction, measurable results, etc. The Second should then report on those items to the First frequently – daily if necessary. This will prevent micromanaging by the First, and reduce his stress considerably.

Keeping a list for the First detailing possible solutions to persistent issues and dates for completion will make the First feel “safe” and able to focus on more pressing issues.

Be A Problem Solver

Firsts shouldn’t have to solve problems for others. Rather, employees at all levels of an organization should be encouraged to bring solutions. The Second can work with employees to understand problems and desired outcomes and to brainstorm solutions on their own – without needing help from the First. After a while, people will stop coming to the First with problems, and the “noise” will become even quieter.

Keep Priorities

Firsts typically are the “idea people.” That is necessary to keep an organization running. However, sometimes – especially with the most creative Firsts – there are too many ideas to consider at once, resulting in confusion and a diluted purpose. Seconds should gather all the ideas from the First and categorize them into “now, no, and later” files. “Now” ideas should be executed right away. “No” ideas should be sensitively brought to the First with an explanation as to why they should not be pursued. “Later” ideas are just as good as the now ideas, but may be better to pursue at a later date. Seconds should continue to encourage Firsts to bring new ideas to fill the files.

Lead vs. Do

It can be tempting to try to do everything yourself – especially if you’re a Second working with a demanding First. Who’s going to do the job better than you, right? Wrong.

Taking everything on your shoulders will not help other people in the organization grow, and will crowd your schedule. Seconds must learn to lead and not just do a job. With encouragement from the First, Seconds must be patient and train others, without letting ego get in the way, and develop others to perform at a higher level.

Bring New Ideas

Seconds should be challenged. It’s not just up to the First to be the fount of all things new and creative. Seconds should come up with new ideas to move the company forward and present them to the First with both positive and negative consequences. Never try to “sell” an idea, but present both sides. That will help the First see the full picture and temper any tendency she might have to point out the negatives. To make sure ideas keep flowing, hold monthly meetings to brainstorm ways to improve what you’re doing individually and as an organization.

As an Account Director at the Bradford Group, I find myself in both positions on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, I need to be an effective “Second.” Other times, I’m the “First,” fighting to “make the noise go away” and looking to another team member to help me stay organized and moving in the right direction.

Authors Linn and Koller make excellent points about catering to each other’s strengths and the elements of work that they enjoy and do best. However, the truth is that everyone must be nimble, sensitive and inquisitive enough to assess the situations where they need to lead as a First or support as a Second.

Where are you most comfortable?

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