Seconds, Roles, Expectations, Issues

This has been cooking up in my brain for a while, even before the quarter where we focused on learning about the identity of “Secondness” in all the different roles we find ourselves in.

Really, we touched on this when we wrote How to be Second – this idea that we are not the role, and identifying with a role (or a title for a role) is short-changing yourself in a dramatic way. You’re a natural fit for certain jackets, but saying “I am a blue sportcoat” makes no sense on the best of days. You wear the jacket, not the other way around.

And, we’ve done a decent amount of learning since then, and frankly, I feel like I DO INDEED have a few things to say about the roles that Seconds tend to inhabit and the way we inhabit them – including some misconceptions around that, and maybe some hard truths, for Seconds and those watching them.

So, I’m going to dive in to explore some of those topics in a multi-part series, the first being all about what a “Second in Command” really might be doing, and what that means.

As always, send me your thoughts (questions, comments, criticisms, celebrations, etc)

The whole thing in writing

This is dive into what a second in command really might be doing and what that means for us as Seconds, but also just like what we as Seconds might be doing when there is work to be done.

Over the course of the conversation, I’m going to dive into a bunch of things like understanding the identity in different places, in different parts of organizations, or even relationships or whatever.

Some of the questions I’m going to explore are:

  • Why it’s not a single role.
  • Why it looks different from org to org.
  • Why it looks different depending on who is in the first in command role.
  • Why you don’t always get a particular title.
  • Why no one on earth seems to have the ability to write a standard job description for it including us. We tried and we gave up after saying “it depends” for about like the 20th time.
  • And why you can be a natural Second and still not be qualified for some second in command roles.

One might be a glove and you might be a hand, and so there of course seems like a natural fit and most of the time there is, but sometimes there’s not.

And why is that?

Spoiler: it’s not just because of the relationship, there are other factors at play here.

I’m just going to start diving in to the statements that I really want to make and unpack how I am arriving at that statement.

Small disclaimer

This is maybe very secondary of me.

I am not what I would consider an expert on some of these topics.

I’m starting to believe that I may have a breadth or depth of perspective on some of these things and I feel like I’m bringing something useful to the conversation now.

There are at least two pieces of work that need done in order to lead something.

Arguable, whether that is actually more complex today than it was 400 years ago…

Those two pieces of work really are

  1. Deciding what the work is
  2. Keeping that work happening

As long as you say, I want to make a peanut butter sandwich, you have decided what the work is.

There might be a bunch of reasons why you want that work to happen, but you’ve decided what the work is. It’s a peanut butter sandwich. And now you have to keep the work happening.

When you’re alone, it is very simple to keep the work happening. You basically know what needs done. You understand what your tools are, where to get those tools, you can do the operations.

If you expand that to a hundred person organization, it’s effectively, still the same. Oftentimes, it also becomes much more difficult.

Complexity and difficulty, not always the same thing, things that are incredibly simple can be incredibly difficult, things that are incredibly complex, we can find out are actually shockingly easy.

One of the common needs in keeping aware of what the work needs to be is understanding what’s coming, right? What we would consider “Heads Up” work.

David and I have talked about this in the When do you see? outline that we developed for How to be Second, and we occasionally refer to this as like the beams on a car. So like the fog lights look very far down, the low beams are a little further out, and then the high beams are up here.

But the high beams generally, don’t see what’s very close to you.

You’re sort of skipping around in those positions of where is the visibility is,

and you know that if you’re facing this way, and you can see things here, you can’t see things that way.

Unless you’re a mom, then you can.

Deciding what the work is is often a heads up activity, keeping the work going you have to be focused right here.

We typically say that is the place where seconds love to live.

We (Seconds) are generally inspired or galvanized by someone who has decided what the work is. And that work is interesting to us, we have lots and lots of energy for that, and it naturally it creates a break in the two pieces of work that need done. And seconds tend to naturally be attracted to keeping the work happening.

Not all “Second In Command” positions are at the top

Important to remember, is that not all second in command roles are exclusively at the top of an organization. You may have many triangles where there is a first in command of a division or a team or a something.

Next second in command is a position possibly with authority, but it rarely defines a specific set of accountabilities other than supporting or doing one of those two primary pieces of leading the work. There is no set job description for a second in command or even a C O O. Let alone one that survives six months to a year in the position.

Some second in command roles will look more side by side with the first in command. Some second in command roles will look more up and down, where a first in command is definitively in authority over a second in command.

.We often see this happen in for-profit or nonprofit organizations where the second in command is being hired in and the the leader is already in an authority position.

You may need to do many pieces of work at the same time.

Important to keep in mind is that:

  • There will be things that aren’t a good use of your time or energy… AND
  • There is no such thing as work that is beneath you… AND
  • Both of those things can be true at the same time on work that you need to do, to keep the work happening.

In a low complexity organization we may be looking at something where you have less than 10 people in the entire organization, and really what that looks like is you have a first in command, a second in command and a bunch of help.

The people who own the accountability of these particular pieces of work that must be done at the end of the day it might be just these two people. And that might stay true to 30, 40, 50 people.

I’m not saying that’s a great idea, I’m just saying it might stay that way.

If you come on as a second in command, the job description that you had in an enterprise where you were the second in command of say a division or a team within the division, that job description will look hilariously different than the job description of being a second in command in say a 40 person organization where the first in command is also the head of admin, finance and ops and the second in command needs to be the head of sales and marketing and people and culture.

I’ve personally seen in a hundred person organization, you might need to be the second in authority in the entire organization that also has to do many different pieces of work at the same time. In a low complexity organization you may never find that keeping everyone moving together is that complex. You may never find all of a person’s time taken up by keeping the team moving forward and keeping the work happening.

Because of the demands of knowing what work needs to be done, and then just keeping the work happening, it may be that you’re overseeing some things for a little while, three months, six months, whatever. And then as the organization changes or as the work to be done changes, you need to shift.

Part of the reason Seconds sit so well in the keeping the work going seat, is that you have such a big, broad range of abilities and knowledge. Curiosity really is one of the key competencies that we carry as this identity, because as the work shifts, to keep the work going, you may need to jump from sales and marketing and people and culture leader over to operations and manager of an admin and sales and marketing head.

One of the key things to remember as both a Second and someone who potentially wants to be a second in command is that if you are doing a good job, or not, you have about six months of your job description. And then it will be fundamentally different.

Because the work that needs done will change and thus what it takes for you to keep the work happening will change.

You’re going to flex

A specific pressure for seconds is recognizing that we will and often need to reach out beyond our role or position. In order to see or do what needs done to keep the work going, like taking care of people or systems or whatever.

So on some level, we really want definition of our role, but we actually go outside of the confines of those definitions all of the time of our own volition in order to actually accomplish our objectives. If you see the domino line moving, and you see that something being off kilter is going to make it so that keeping the work going stops, you’re going to deviate from your stated job description.

You’re going to think, “I’m going to jump into that thing too, because my job is to keep the work going. It’s not to live within the confines of this description.”

So, of course you want it defined, but that level of certainty that we’re often looking for needs to be elevated to a level of clarity, and the clarity is your job is to keep the work going.

Your job is not to do whatever it said on the sheet of paper that outlined your roles and responsibilities.

Aside from the fact that whoever wrote up the roles and responsibilities thing was thinking of the org of the current day or the work they believed needed to be done and had no recognition of what was going to happen over the course of the next six months and necessarily change.

Operator vs Operations

People who keep the work happening are regularly required to be good at the same stuff it takes to be good at delivering the product. So Operations and Operator are often overlapped as being the same work.

You still need to be able to see everything that’s happening, all the different pieces and components that go into delivering the product, and a lot of that is down to our seeing the domino line, and our natural ability to be planners, and our natural ability to keep people moving together.

So it’s like a microcosm of the entire organization all within your one division.

And you may need to do both of those pieces of work at the same time. It’s so overlapping in the skillsets that it often just makes sense to have the same person doing both of those things or to think that that is what that person does.

Once again, there will be things that aren’t a good use of your time or energy, but there is no such thing as work that is beneath you, and both of those things can be true at the same time on work that must be done.

Their Identity matters too

You and your first in command might not get along because not all first in commands are this caricature 1iC type person, in fact, many are not. So, when you are splitting the work, it needs to look different because you are two people who need to take care of the two fundamental pieces of the work, deciding what the work is and keeping the work happening.

If the first in command is someone who’s actually really excellent in the keeping the work happening category, (I fall into this camp) you may need a second in command who has a lot of tendencies in the deciding what the work is category.

You may be able to subset that with like a board of advisors, which we have done, other advisors or coaches, which I also have done… but both of those two pieces of work need done.

If you have a first in command who says, “Hey, I’m pretty good at deciding what the work is and also I have a particular strength in finance”, then you, as the second in command, don’t need to be taking care of finance in order to keep the work going.

If that’s what you primarily bring to the table, it’s not a great match.

It doesn’t mean that you’re not a fantastic second in command. It means that you’re not a great second in command for that pairing.

Your skill sets may not compliment each other, which means you won’t be able to cover the work that needs done.

Being a Second doesn’t auto-qualify you

You can be a second by identity and still unsuited to many second in command roles. Doing the work is on some level about the ability to do the work.

You may be able to naturally understand the domino line, but if you’re not a great communicator or you just don’t understand how money works, you won’t be able to keep everyone aligned or make daily decisions.

Since the work is different from org to org, or even time to time, you may be unsuited to the needs of that group.

And very interestingly, you may have a shelf life, which is something we don’t often want to think about as people who need money to live and typically these roles come with that financial security… but the reality is, as the work shifts, we may become unsuited for the people being the ones keeping the work going.

In Closing

Okay. This has been so much. I think this whole thing is 15 minutes long. I hope you watched it on 2x speed. I had someone say the other day, they prefer me in one and a half speed and I laughed openly about that because I appreciated it so deeply.

I’m working through a lot of these things, just like everyone else is, and I’ve had the good fortune of being able to invest a lot of my time and attention into these topics.

So I hope that by me doing that, even if you disagree with some of the things that I’ve said, It gets you through the questions of this faster.

And of course I’m always open and interested in hearing whatever feedback or comments that you have.

Thank you again

Without you, there is literally no reason to do any of this. 

So, thank you for being on the list and opening the email, for making it this far, for being who you are at all.

And thank you for being or supporting those of us who prefer to serve from just left of the limelight.

Finding a Job as a Second

At any point, you may find yourself in need of new work. If you do, here are some tactical resources to get you accelerated in doing that.