In U.S. Presidential elections, the choice of a running mate can influence voter views of the candidate and shift the dialogue, as happened following Mitt Romney’s naming of conservative budget-chopping congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick in the race for the White House. Pundits proclaimed immediately that Mr. Romney would succeed or fail based on this single choice, making the number two the prime mover in the fate of the number one.
Unlike the U.S. political system, the business world has no rules requiring that every leader have a backup, or that every corporate chief executive has a chief operating officer. Indeed, some leaders prefer to consolidate power rather than name a second-in-command. In some big companies, the CEO takes on all the top titles — chairman, president, and CEO — and scatters authority over an array of divisional and functional heads or appoints a trio of vice chairmen.
In fact, some CEOs don’t want a strong number two, perhaps finding it threatening that they could be surpassed. That’s often the case with founder-led companies in which the founder wants a team in which no one can emerge as a rival. I used to wonder whether that was why Sanford Weill, builder of the current Citigroup, eased out his protégé Jamie Dimon, now CEO of JPMorganChase.
Still, most leaders benefit from a running-the-company mate. A good number two can back them up, reinforce their message, and handle major responsibilities with the same broad view as the top person. Consider whether Apple would be flourishing today had the late Steve Jobs not appointed Tim Cook as COO well before his fatal illness. Apple continued to run with little discernable change, except that Cook’s black open collar shirts substituted for Jobs’s black turtleneck sweaters on the product announcement stage. In contrast, another software entrepreneur found that a poor choice of a chief technology officer, who was assumed by others to be the unannounced number two, prevented his small startup from being acquired by a Silicon Valley giant, because the potential acquirer found the CTO incapable of backing up the CEO as the company grew.
If you want to get the right number two, consider these three factors.
1. Alignment: Which signals do you want to amplify?
It’s obvious that a top leader should choose a number two whose values and principles are aligned with hers in a general way. But a leader can also have multiple facets and leave some ambiguity about strategic direction. Adding a number two to the equation reinforces some possibilities while downplaying others. In Romney’s case, selecting strongly conservative Ryan made it harder for Romney to show centrist tendencies. For companies, the choice of a number two underscores the business emphasis. Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg appointed Lowell McAdam, head of Verizon Wireless, as COO and successor. This amplified the company’s message about the importance of wireless technologies, even though McAdam (who later became CEO) would also preside over landline operations.
2. Differentiation: What skills are you missing?
Although compatibility is important, leaders fare better when they complement themselves with a partner who brings a different skill set. Avoiding the temptation to clone yourself means accepting your limitations. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to add a second-in-command to his burgeoning social media empire showed a mature recognition that he couldn’t be alone at the top and needed someone with different skills. Sheryl Sandberg, who became COO, brought management savvy and government relations experience, both essential to an expanding high-profile company.
3. Succession: Can you hand over power?
The smooth handoff at Xerox from former CEO Anne Mulcahy to current CEO Ursula Burns is often lauded as a model. Mulcahy’s turnaround of a then-troubled company included more than a successful strategic shift to document management; she focused on leadership development and elevated COO Burns, who went from rising talent to partner and successor-in-waiting.
Even the greatest leaders sometimes fumble this factor. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected President, is widely considered one of the best leaders of the past century. Harvard MBA students, who have never found a CEO they couldn’t improve, fall silent in awe of Mandela’s prowess at restoring confidence in a divided nation. Except for one thing. They say he didn’t do enough to ensure there would be a strong successor.
In this era of collaborative leadership and emphasis on the whole team, it seems old-fashioned to talk of numbers one and two, except for Presidential elections. But the reality is that every leader needs someone to run with. And the choice of that person can make or break you.