To Succeed in any Organization, Become a Strong “#2”

One of the ways I have always gotten ahead in business is to make sure that I thought of myself as a “number two,” as a sort of partner to my boss.  As a middle manager for many years, regardless of what the org chart said, that’s how I regarded myself and my job. Never mind that I wasn’t always the number-two manager in the division, that was very much beside the point (although it is worth noting that for much of my career I did report to the head of whatever division I worked for).   

The primary job of the number two is to ensure the success of number one. If number one succeeds, we all succeed, I reasoned. If I played an instrumental role in helping my boss to achieve his or her goals, I thought, the more invaluable I would be perceived and the more secure the position would be. Does this mean that I ignore my own personal performance goals? Hardly.

I always memorize my goals as soon as I get them, and at some point early in the year, I ask my manager the specifics about his or her goals. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the goals of the division president were basically the same goals of the division, so every manager I have ever worked for was eager to disclose his goals to me and the rest of his direct reports (and often to the rest of the division). Once you know your boss’s goals, then you must commit to help him or her make those goals a reality.   

In the publishing business, as in almost all businesses, the most important goals are quantitative. They include a top line revenue number and a bottom line profit number. Those were always up and away my boss’s two primary goals as well as the two key divisional goals. There were other goals—such as the “number of books to be published in a given calendar year”—but that goal was almost always less important than the other two goals (I say “almost always” because I had one manager who seemed completely obsessed with the number of books we published).

So how do you make sure that you are a strong Number Two? Consider the following:

* Acknowledge that being number two is as much a mindset as a methodology: Being a strong number two means adapting the mindset first. It means adjusting your thinking to encompass the reality that you have, in essence, given yourself an extra set of goals to worry about.

* Use as little time and resources of the unit head as possible: This means being decisive and relying less on your boss. Remember the oft repeated phrase that it “is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Remember that your boss’s time is one of the most critical and costly assets of the division. Rather than seeking “face time,” do the opposite. Let your great work speak for you.     

 * Look for any opportunity to help your boss achieve big things: I am not talking about jockeying for position or playing office politics. This means that you will have to think bigger and broader than yourself. It may mean subordinating your own goals to your manager’s goals when the right opportunity comes along. In my full time job in publishing, it might mean volunteering my time to help my boss with a manuscript or book that would help the division but one that I receive no credit for. 

In conclusion, even if you feel overwhelmed by your own workload, consider being a strong Number Two anyway. You might find it fun and challenging at the same time, while giving you a different view of your unit than you might have by focusing only on your own goals.   




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