This one is by my friend and long time colleague, Mac Martirossian.

Every four years, we are reminded that the Office of the President of the United States casts a long shadow on the role of the Vice President. No one in Hollywood is interested in making a blockbuster movie about the Vice President of the United States. To my knowledge, no Vice President has been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, since the annual event was launched in 1927. As a culture, we thrive on the idea of being Number 1 and the mere thought of aspiring to be Number 2 is frowned upon as an imperfection.

In the world of business, there is dynamic tension among members of senior management for the coveted CEO role. The “Boss” is the key decision maker, the one with the largest pay check and biggest office. So why would anyone plan their life around being “second in command”? Could it be that some have a sense of fulfillment in that capacity, even if it means being in the shadow of the CEO? Often times they carry the title of COO, but not always. In the context of this article, the term COO is used to describe the person on the management team who is involved in multiple segments of the company’s operations; it could be a Director, a Senior Manager or Manager. But it is abundantly clear who the CEO relies on to be his or her sounding board, adviser and consigliore.

CEO’s tend to be visionaries and rewarded for seeing the future. COO’s enjoy the “high” that results from bringing visions to realities. The good news is that every organization benefits from both of these individuals in different ways. There is a counterbalance that makes the leadership union complete. The late Robert Goizueta and Donald Keough had that symbiotic relationship when they were at the Coca-Cola Company. Some have said that the Number 2 has the toughest job in the company, since he or she has the task of completing the pictures on the drawing board; generating results from the ideas sketched by the Boss; taking action with limited details and often limited resources.

In a document published in November 2007 by the Conference Board, it was reported that the position of COO was founded sometime in the 19th Century and reached its apex in the ‘70s. In today’s world, many companies have consolidated the position with the role of the CFO or eliminated it all together. The question of who is the “Go to Person” is left unanswered in some companies. Often, management members wear multiple hats and the COO is either the individual responsible for assigning those duties to the right person or if there is no likely candidate, he or she becomes the “Go to Person”.

Business Unit Leaders, or “BULs” as this author likes to call them, have unique talents which got them to the top post. But having a management group with those same talents would not necessarily ensure success. It has been my experience that we are either wired for strategic thinking or we are execution driven. Rarely, do the characteristics of visionaries and ground-engaged managers get packaged into a single individual.

Here are some differences between BULs and #2’s:

Business Unit Leader may be:

  • Futuristic
  • Conceptual
  • Dynamic
  • Value absence of routine
  • Blind spot—details

Second in Command is often:

  • Realist
  • Industrious
  • Responsible
  • Value predictability and order
  • Blind spot—listening to others

Notice these two personalities are not polar opposites. In fact, there are many complimentary characteristics, which makes the combination of a strong BUL and a capable #2 such a powerful team.

In the end, it is a rewarding experience to be the right hand person to a dynamic BUL. There is an immense sense of accomplishment, when a futuristic idea is brought to life, profits are increased and customers are delighted. So its true, not everyone wants to be a CEO

In the business and academic world, we need to praise managers who work selflessly to gain the respect and the right to be the “Go to Person” and not to consider them failures for never making it to the top post. Second in commands play a significant role in their respective organizations. Take for example the appointment of Tim Cook, COO of Apple to take over Steve Jobs’ responsibilities during his extended medical leave. Apple customers, employees and shareholders were seeking comfort and strength in Steve’s absence. And they got what they were seeking. Until now, we had never heard much, if anything, about Mr. Cook, because he was quietly busy implementing Steve’s vision and most importantly, earning his respect to fill his large shoes while he recuperates. A Fuqua Scholar who earned his MBA from Duke University, he will show his strength as a leader during this tenuous period in Apple’s history and when he is needed most. Fortune magazine called him “The genius behind Steve.”

How rewarding to be #2.

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