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How to play second fiddle with finesse

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Robin. Dr. Watson. Al Gore. Here's to the loyal second banana, who sweats the details while numero uno collects the accolades.

In corporate America, good subordinates must bolster their leader's ego while checking theirs at the door. They must seek credit without upstaging the boss. At times, they must object without being objectionable.

They are "always the person in the middle, handling the stress, being a good soldier," says Jaye Smith, human relations consultant with New York's Arbor Group.

And the road to the top _ whether at the department, division or senior management level _ invariably winds through the deputy's office. So why don't more business schools and corporations teach fast trackers how to fulfill this critical role? "There are hundreds of courses on being a leader," says William Crockett, who wrote The Secrets of a Dynamic Subordinate that Every Manager Should Know. "But when you get fired, it's because you didn't please your boss."

The first responsibility of a good No. 2 is to win the boss' trust, says Amanda Rose, who fills that role as executive director of Stanford Coaching, a privately held New York company that tutors students for college entrance exams.

It took two years before Rose's boss trusted her with revenue-building duties. Now, she says, "it's important to me never to violate that trust."

Rose built that rapport by "knowing what I can and can't reveal" to others, by knowing that when the news media calls, her boss speaks for the company and by showing a united front to the staff.

That doesn't mean being a yes-person. At a recent staff meeting, "it was very obvious we had different opinions," she says. "I stated my opinion, then my boss Lisa said, "That's Amanda's opinion. Here are my thoughts.' " Such open discussion is good for the staff, she says, and most times, compromises can be worked out.

And if they can't? "I will probably capitulate," Rose says. You can't be a good subordinate with an "I'll-show-you" attitude, she explains.

That gets tricky when your boss' self-interest and the company's diverge, says management consultant Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower.

"Who is your loyalty to?" he asks. He votes for the company. By going against the boss, "you fear your career will be damaged," he says. "But in reality, it will be damaged more if you violate the common interest."

But remember, if you are going to take on your boss, the problemhad better be darned serious.

Some bosses hog the limelight, making it difficult for aides to get needed recognition. Rose has no such problems, but for those less fortunate, she advises: "You have to take the risk of approaching the boss and saying, "Look, something isn't going right here. I'm not here to complain or threaten. I just want to fix it.'


Here is what Rose's boss seeks in a good subordinate:

"I don't need someone who's going to give me huge ideas or create the map from ground zero," says Lisa Jacobson, Stanford Coaching's president. "I need someone who's going to make the map detailed and implement it."

She also wants someone who is direct and clear, with an open-minded attitude and a can-do spirit. "I want someone who says, "It's going to be okay. This is under control,'

" she says.

Surviving when you're No. 2

Here are pointers if you're trying to be a successful KNOW WHAT THE BOSS EXPECTS. Most companies want a second-in-command with the ability to fill the top spot, recruiter John Karrel says. But if the boss plans a long tenure, she may prefer an aide who is more comfortable out of the spotlight. You need to understand the situation. Good aides also anticipate the boss' concerns. "Know what keeps your boss awake at night," Karrel advises.

CARPE DIEM. "There were so many things to do that the sheriff couldn't always be there. That's your time to shine." says Michael Emerson who was a deputy at FCB Leberkatz Partners and now is a vice president and managing director at the ad agency.

REMEMBERING THE DETAILS. It may be dealing with the minutiae of the business plan, or even showing interest and enthusiasm.

TOOT YOUR OWN HORN, BUT VERY SOFTLY. "It's important to outline what you did, how you got there and what resources you used, so they know they can rely on you in the future," Arbor Group's Jaye Smith advises.

Source: Wall Street Journal