Monday, July 14, 2008

What's So Bad About Being No. 2?

As Barack Obama and John McCain try and decide who should be their vice-presidential running mate, let's take a look at what's so great about being No. 2.

OK. Hmmmm...

1. You're not No. 3.
2. You usually get a good parking spot.
3. See reason No. 1.

All right, all kidding aside, is it really so bad to be No. 2? Well, it can be kind of tough to proclaim that you're really proud to be second-in-command in this country. After all, aren't we programmed from an early age that we want to be -- no, must be -- No. 1?

Our children must go to the top preschool, elementary school, high school, college, etc. No one, after all, holds up those foam fingers at football games that proclaim "We're No. 2!" Companies proclaim they have the No. 1 laundry detergent and we must be the No. 1 sales team before we get our bonus from the boss.

But what if your life's aspiration is to be No. 2? Does that make you a loser?


The No. 2 can wield enormous power. Just look at Dick Cheney. (OK, on second thought, let's not.)

Let's instead look at all the reasons that being No. 2 isn't such a bad gig:
1. It's action-packed. While No. 1 gets to make the final decision, it's the second-in-command who puts it into play. If you like facing challenges, being the go-to person, this may be a job you love.
2. You can be a fly-on-the-wall. People pay a lot of attention to No. 1, and may carefully watch what they say or do around him or her. But the No. 2 can often sit back, observe and learn. Seeing people in their unguarded moments can be a fascinating adventure.
3. You learn from No. 1's mistakes. It's called second-mover advantage by game theorists: No. 2's gain an edge simply by observing what the first mover has done.
4.You get to keep your head on your shoulders. When times are tough, people are looking for someone to blame. That usually is No. 1. And No. 1 usually is asked, or forced, to take a hike.
5. You get a great parking spot. Did I already mention that?

Of course, there are downsides to being No. 2. In a sort of "kick the dog" syndrome, the No. 1 can take out frustrations most often on the second-in-command. Or, it can get frustrating seeing No. 1 taking credit for your hard work. And, when you're No. 2 sometimes you have to do things you don't agree with, but you have to because your boss is -- you got it -- the boss of you.

But if you can get past some of the frustrations, some of the blows to your own ego, No. 2 these days may be the best position on the field. You can be exposed to important people and jobs, you can have a real impact on a company's direction and outlook and you probably won't take the hit if things go south. If you have problems saying you're not No. 1, just remember the words of Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

Do you think being No. 2 is a good thing? Why or why not?


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Words For Hire said...

Anita, another thought provoking topic! I believe that often we create such a narrow definition of success that we fail to take in our own needs, personalities and preferences. Some people are better suited to being the tactical enforcer who makes things happen in the background. There is no shame in being number 2 and in my book if you are doing something you love, you are a total success!-Karen

Bob said...

I for one am not ashamed of shooting for the second slot for the very reasons you listed. But at the same time I don't mind taking the lead if I happen to be the expert at hand.

And you didn't mention one great end result of being #2... it can be FAR less stressful! That alone is worth it in my book.

Anita said...

That's very true. I know a woman who was No. 2 in three different jobs, and each time she moved to No. 1...and hated it. Now, she's in middle management and says she's accepted the fact that she doesn't like being No. 1. She says it takes her away from the action (and puts her in more meetings!) when she's No. 1. She says she has more freedom to not only try different things -- but to sometimes fail.
Thanks for posting.

Anita said...

I thought about listing it as less stressful, but is it always? I suppose it depends on your stressors. Some might be fine with never getting the credit, but for others, that may be the worst thing EVER. I think you'd have to have a real sense of who you were and where you want to go.
You made some great points.

ian said...

Anita, Another great post to ponder about.

I think #2 is a great for people want to get things done & doesn't like the spotlight. Plus there is less politics to handle since less people focus on you.

In branding & competitive environment, #2 needs to work harder to overtake #1, hence more value for the buck. An famous example of #2 was Avis, they were proud of it & promoted 'We try harder'.

Although, the side that really suck probably is the compensation gap between #1 & 2.

Shawn said...

Being No. 1 is like being the lead singer in a band. All eyes are on you. If you forget the lyrics or trip running onto the stage, it's tough to hide. When you're No. 2, you're mistakes aren't always as obvious so you don't take as much of the heat. said...

I end up asking this question to a lot of people actually.

I have learnt that they are more concerned with appearing successful than 'actually' being successful.

Thin line... but there.

Anita said...

Great analogy about Avis.
I'm not sure there's a LOT less politics as No. 2...those people tell me it's still pretty tough. But, as you point out, the No. 1 people get compensated for what they go through -- No. 2 doesn't always garner such. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

Anita said...

That's why I think some people are content at being No. 2...they like the action, but not the heat.
Thanks for posting.

Anita said...

I wonder if age has anything to do with it? The older you get, the less caught up you are in a title? Or the younger you are, the more you're focused on being happy in what you're matter the title? Interesting thought.