The Vital Relationship Between a Leader and Their Second in Command

In May, 2006 an article appeared in the Harvard Business Reviewwith the interesting title of Second in Command: The Misunderstood Role of the Chief Operating Officer.Whatever the title given by an organisation to the second in command, the article hints at the potential and unique challenges faced by someone in this role.


The relationship between a leader (CEO, Senior Pastor, Managing Director etc) of an organisation and the second in charge (Chief Operating Officer, Executive Pastor, 2IC etc) is of critical importance to the success of the organisation. When it works well, the organisation is more likely to flourish. When it works poorly or turns sour, the organisation will suffer.


A Unique Point of Reference

The HBR article pointed out that while other jobs are primarily defined in relation to the work to be done within and for the organization, the 2IC’s role is defined in relation to the CEO as an individual. Think of it like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

The CEO is the first piece in place, and is likely to be resistant or reticent to change much of their shape. There may be very good reasons for this. A CEO is effective most often because they know who they are and what they do best, and they keep being it and doing it consistently. Making significant changes to that may reduce their effectiveness and the health of the organisation. 

The second piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the 2IC. If you’re the 2IC, you may have just said to yourself, “And don’t I know it!” with a sigh. But that’s the way it is. Maybe you aspire to one day be a CEO and dream of the time you get to set the pace. But for now, your best way to achieve that goal is to fit yourself to the shape of your CEO.


Desirable Qualities

So, what makes a great 2IC? While the answer may be different in different situations, and while there are more answers than can be explored in this article, here are some general answers to that question.

  1. Understanding and willingly accepting that the CEO is the set piece of the puzzle to which you must align, and not vice-versa. Some CEO’s may see abilities in their 2IC and accommodate themselves to make room for those talents, especially if the CEO is grooming the 2IC for future promotion. However, if that doesn’t happen, the 2IC needs to be accepting of it.
  2. Understanding and applying yourself to help make the CEO’s vision a reality.
  3. Knowing that you are another pair of hands to assist the CEO with the complexity and scope of their job. Having the awareness to know when and how to do this well.
  4. Appreciating, though you may know a considerable amount regarding the CEO’s role, you cannot know the weight of the role until it is yours. So, resist the temptation to be critical. And, be kind. This may sound simplistic and some CEO’s can give the impression that they don’t need your kindness. But they do. An occasional question like, “How are you doing?” can go a long way. One CEO told me how, after an extremely difficult conversation they had with someone in their office, their 2IC simply walked in and put a fresh cup of tea on their desk and walked out. That meant a lot (apart from the CEO wishing it was a much stronger drink).


Unique Focuses(or Foci if you did Latin at school - two wasted years of my life)

It is often the case that the focuses of the CEO and the 2IC are unique in two ways in particular:

  1. The CEO has more of an external focus. For instance, the CEO is likely to be the corporate face of the organisation, to represent the organisation to other groups, and to represent the organisation to key stakeholders such as customers and the Board. This means that the 2IC needs to have a strong internal focus, helping to keep things in good order amongst the staff and inside the organisation.
  2. The focus of the CEO is likely to be (and should be) on the future - on what’s ahead, dreaming and visioning. So the focus of the 2IC needs to be on the now - high quality implementation and delivery.


The Underpinning of Success

The HBR article notes that the single element most critical to the success of a CEO-2IC pairing is the level of trust between the two individuals. Without trust and respect, the relationship between the CEO and 2IC can become dysfunctional. 

Trust is all about meeting expectations. So it is vital that mutual expectations are made explicit. It is not uncommon for a CEO to presume that a 2IC has the same capabilities or understandings of the role that they have (sometimes because the CEO was once the 2IC of the organisation). These presumptions can be significantly incorrect leading to a failure to meet expectations and, consequently, a breakdown of trust - often with disastrous consequences. 


What the 2IC Owes the CEO

1.     Respect. It’s vital that the 2IC respects the CEO’s strategic leadership. To this end, the CEO and 2IC must spend sufficient time talking together regarding the CEO’s vision and strategic intents so that the 2IC can align with the CEO’s agenda. It is dangerously possible for a CEO to live so far off in vision land that they leave the 2IC and the rest of the team behind.

2.     Servant leadership. Owing to their unique place in the organisation, the 2IC needs to develop the challenging skill of leading while serving. Have you known a 2IC who presents a pleasant and compliant face to the CEO while employing a demanding or rough manner with their own reports or peers? This is deadly for that organisation.

3.     Able to deliver. The CEO must be able to trust that the 2IC is focusing the team on excellent delivery in the here and now, while the CEO is focusing on external and future matters.

4.     Coaching. The 2IC should be able to coach others throughout the organisation.

5.      Cover. The 2IC needs to have the back of the CEO. If something the CEO says or does can be taken one of two ways, the 2IC needs to take the best interpretation. 

6.      Honesty. If, for some reason, the 2IC becomes unhappy or concerned with their relationship with the CEO, it is important for the 2IC to raise this with the CEO in an appropriate and timely manner rather than let it percolate in their heart and mind. This is often a difficult thing to do but is a ‘crucial conversation’ that shouldn’t be avoided. 


What the CEO Owes the 2IC

1.     Relationship. It is unnecessary for the CEO and 2IC to be friends in a social sense. However, the strength of their relationship is often an indicator of the health of the whole organisation. The CEO needs to take prime responsibility for this through regular contact, enquiring regarding the interests and well-being of the 2IC, social occasions such as meals together etc. As much physical proximity as possible is advantageous though not always possible. If the decision is made to locate a 2IC away from the CEO in order to have them closer to their direct reports, then the efforts made to maintain a healthy relationship need to be even greater.

2.     Communication. In order for the 2IC to embrace the CEO’s vision and strategy, these must be communicated clearly and continually (as they are constantly evolving). 

3.     Clear responsibilities. There needs to be explicit and reasonable lines of demarcation between the roles and responsibilities of the CEO and 2IC. 

4.     Judicial access. It is healthy for people in an organisation to have a level of access to the CEO and vice-versa. This helps keep the CEO in touch and the team on mission. To this end, many CEO’s employ the MBWA (management by walking around) strategy or hang out with staff at morning tea etc.  However, the 2IC needs total confidence that the CEO never allows this access to undermine the 2IC’s authority. The CEO needs to be aware that some people may take advantage of access to surreptitiously bypass the 2IC, potentially making it difficult for the 2IC to do their job or even driving a wedge between the CEO and 2IC.

5.     Honour and encouragement. Any CEO who finds and creates opportunity to encourage their 2IC and to honour them in front of the team will find it pays dividends - especially when it makes clear to both the 2IC and the team that the CEO understands and appreciates the unique and significant challenges of being a great second in command.


by Murray Averill