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The Problem of the Second-In-Command: Why Successors Fail

The Challenge of Succession, and Succession Planning

When there are two successful, effective, powerful people at, or near the top of an organization, it seems like succession planning should be easy. If the #1 is gone, the #2, the right-hand person, the consigliere is the obvious choice, right?

Well, no.

Replacement leaders often fail because they assume they can still do what they did, and be accepted by the organization based on their prior way of behaving. Sadly, not so easy.

We Don’t Notice Role-Splitting

What I have observed is that two people who work closely together to run an organization “split” many of the leadership/style roles. The same is true for parents, and for families with multiple children.

Here are just three examples of role splits between the “person at the top” (PATT) and the “right-hand person” (RHP):

1. Charismatic Dreamer/Implementor:

The “person at the top” (PATT) is the dreamer, or founder. Their role is to come up with ideas and possibilities. They tend to be charismatic. Their “right-hand person” (RHP) is the implementor, who marshalls the organizational personnel and processes. The RHP is viewed as boring and bland, and occasionally obstructionist, and not a good voice for the organization – how could they follow in the PATT’s footsteps?

2. Kind Parent/Hatchet Person:

The PATT is incredibly inspirational, motivational, kind, and filled with the joy of leading an organization. The RHP is the hatchet-wielder. All bad news passes through the RHP. If a head is to removed, the RHP directs the removal. The PATT never gets mad. That’s the RHP’s job, at least to the larger organization. The RHP’s name is said with fear and trembling.

3. Hard Results Person/People Person:

The PATT is focused on results, results, results. All this “soft skill stuff” is not their interest. Just get it done. The RHP takes care of the care and feeding of people. The RHP is loved and adored, but not necessarily viewed as a successor, as they are not “tough” enough.

The issue arises when the RHP is to be promoted to the PATT (Or, in a family, where one parent leaves or dies.)

It seems so obvious that the RHP should just step in.

However, they are suddenly expected to become the Charismatic Dreamer, or the Hard Results Person, just like their predecessor, whom everyone knew so well. Even if the person who left had faults, the need for their “style role” likely still exists on some level.

Both the organization and the individual must recognize what this means. Someone must be in charge of charisma, results, and even hatchets. Accepting that a successor will be different is hard for an organization. Accepting that I may need to be different is hard for an individual. Coaching, style assessment, and hard thought around expectations are key.

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Cynthia Burnham.