The Secrets of Second Place

by Ron Haynes

“Hey Boss, how can I help?”

Few words are sweeter to anyone’s ear than those offering a helping hand and that is especially true for your boss. Bosses, in many ways, are like the expansion joint between slabs of concrete: they get squeezed from both sides.

If you find yourself in that second slot, it’s helpful to remember that being second in command can be even lonelier than being at the top. Being the best number TWO requires hard work and long hours, but there are distinct advantages to playing second fiddle. If you’re really good, your compensation is second only to her’s and while you may wish it were you receiving the accolades and praise when times are good, think of it this way: very few people know the second in command at General Motors when CEO Rick Wagoner was handed his pink slip recently. Sometimes being second lets you live to fight another day.

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Here are 5 secrets to operating as the second in command:

1. Make his priorities your own.
In any economy, recession or not, my top job is to make my boss happy. No matter my personal feelings or opinions, my top priority is to insure my boss’s wishes get accomplished. Great bosses will encourage communication (even dissent!), but make sure that after you’ve voiced your opinion and you walk out of that office, there isn’t any doubt about your eagerness to get his priorities accomplished.

2. Keep the humility train rolling.
I like recognition too. It’s even listed in my management profile as something I “crave.” But how can I self-promote without coming across as self-aggrandizing? Keep producing desired results. Those results are what really matters anyway, right? If you or I continually add value, no one can accuse us of self-promotion, but when anyone attempts empty self-promotion, everyone can see it from a mile away.

3. Deputize your job.

Make your boss’s life easier and yours will be easier too. The people in second place are often the last ones laid off or fired if they’re making the boss’s life easier, and they’re often able to get just the right kind of attention. Let her know you understand what’s required for success and that you’re 100 percent on board. Don’t view your boss as an obstacle to your happiness on the job, view her as your project to impress. She’s a lot easier to impress when you’ve made her life easier.

4. Categorize your boss.
You may find that your boss falls into one of two categories:

  • Competitor
  • Mentor

If you find that she sees you as a competitor, you’ll need to establish some channels to get out of the group she controls. Go to industry gatherings, trade shows, golf outings, or other social events where you can establish a relationship with others in your department, company, industry or even with your boss’s boss. These social settings will allow you to point out your personal contributions in a relaxed setting. Those contributions might otherwise be conceived as your boss’s success. Be truthful and respectful when you point these out.

If your boss is a mentor, congratulations. You are fortunate to be dealing with someone who is secure enough to want to pull others up with her. Let her know that you see her as a mentor and coach and that you want to become the best you can be, with her help. To do that, you’ll need to draw upon her wisdom and experiences in the industry. Ask lots of questions: does she like details or just a synopsis? Does she like daily updates or would weekly suit her better?

5. Know what you really want.
Far too often, those second in command yearn for the top spot, but I believe it’s important to know that not everyone is cut out for top executive management. Know what you really want from your career. It may NOT be that you want the pressure, the spotlight, and the ulcers that can come from being top dog. You may be perfectly happy by staying just under the radar. But if your dream is to sit in the top chair, being second in command can give you some great experience.

Second fiddle does have its advantages and if you learn the secret of contentment, playing second fiddle just might be the job of your dreams.

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 987 articles on The Wisdom Journal.


The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.