Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can Playing Second Banana Be a Smart Career Move?

When I was a kid, I didn't think too much of Ed McMahon.

"He doesn't do anything," I would complain to my sisters when we were allowed to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson.

Oh, how wrong I was. McMahon did the most important thing of all: He made his boss look good.

He laughed when the jokes were good, or even bad. He was a perfect straight man to Carson's antics, always letting his boss have the limelight. He even knew when it was time to scoot down the couch for the guests. And who could have imagined his "Heeeere's Johnny" would be such a fantastic branding strategy?

I think some people thought McMahon would never have fame on his own once Carson ended the show. They predicted McMahon would fade away into the distance like an old cowboy put out to pasture. But McMahon proved them wrong and had many successes on his own.

McMahon may have played second banana during part of his career, but he certainly knew how to parlay that into something more. His death this week recalled an interview I did for my Gannett/USA Today column and a blog post on what it can really mean to be the No. 2 -- and how to be successful at it. I thought today would be a good time to re-publish the story:

James E. Lukaszewski often helps companies handle some of the most difficult, touchy management situations and has seen what it’s really like to be part of the executive suite trenches. So, he has this observation to pass onto anyone who wants to become part of that inner circle and become a trusted advisor to anyone in power: “Welcome to the line of fire.”

Those aren’t exactly reassuring words for anyone hoping to boost their career profile and power by being a strategic player to an organization’s head honcho, but Lukaszewski says taking on that role is not for the faint of heart.

“Being a ‘lady in waiting’ is a difficult and scary position to be in,” he says. “If you’re afraid, find another job.”

Still, many people covet having a role where the boss listens to them, where the boss heeds their advice and they make a real impact on the decision-making process.

If that’s the case, Lukaszewski has some advice that he also offers in his new
book, “Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor".

For example, if you want to become the valued No. 2 to the boss (No. 1), you need to:

1. Be able to give advice on the spot. If you need time to take notes, think about a boss’s question and ask for time to come up with possible solutions, you won’t be considered a valuable advisor. “These CEOs want their time used extraordinarily smartly,” Lukaszewski says. “They’re not going to wait around on you to come back later with an answer.”

2. Tell the boss something he or she doesn’t already know. “These bosses are pretty much up on all the positions and what everyone is doing,” he says. “They don’t want to hear that from you – they’re looking for what you can tell them to do next. These leaders often make it up a little every day as they go along, because there’s no one who can tell them where to go next. If you can help them do that, it’s greatly valued.”

3. Give an ingredient of the solution. “Always make three recommendations,” he says. “Option one is to do nothing, option two is to do something and option three is to do something more. Providing multiple options is what will keep you at the table and avoids the high-risk strategy of making a single recommendation, which can be torpedoed by a single question.”

He adds that when you get a chance to present a strategy to the boss, try to make it in about three minutes. Specifically, when you’re called on by the boss to offer strategic advice, you should include: a description of the issue (60 words); a description of what the situation means and its implications (60 words); the task to be accomplished (60 words); the options available (150 words); a recommendation (60 words); and the intended consequences (60 words).

Lukaszewski says that while most people say that want to be “at the table,” the truth is that “you are the table.”

“If you are one of the trusted individuals, you bring the table with you,” he says. “When you are in the room, the table is full. You take the brief time you are given with these important people and you make it valuable.”

One of the key issues a person may have to deal with if he or she becomes a trusted advisor to a top boss is the number of people who want to “get you to use your influence with the boss – the influence they don’t have,” Lukaszewski says.

“They want to know what the boss says, what he knows,” he says. “But you’re going to have to be honest with these people and tell them that you only know a particular area, and they’re going to have to find someone else to help them. You’re going to have to suggest that they make an appointment to speak to the boss themselves. It’s difficult, but it’s all about managing the politics of the situation.”

Do you think being "second banana" makes sense?


Dan Erwin said...

Very much sense. At exec levels, some are just a lot better at being #2, than @1--and many recognize that.

I also have a "managing up memo" post that follows exactly the same recommendations as your post. It's here:

Anita said...

Thanks, Dan. I can't count the number of times I've had people lament that they want to be No. 1 -- and then find out they don't really like it when it happens. I think this is a lesson in understanding what really makes you happy in your career.

David Benjamin said...

Not everyone can be the #1. Being a strong right hand man, learning from a great leader and mentor is never a bad thing. At some point, if there is no more room to grow as #2 and you're ready to try being #1...nobody is going to stop you.

There may come a time when you wish you were back to being #2.

Anita said...

I think it's that thing of "be careful what you wish for." If you're looking just to get a title, or a specific office, then you're going about it the wrong way. You need to consider what you're good at, what you're HAPPIEST doing...and if that means being No. 2, it is no one's business but yours.
Thanks for adding your comments.