Famous Sidekicks – can you name them?

There are some institutions, such as late night talk shows, where the host has a foil with whom they ramble through their nightly musings. He could be the proverbial seat-warmer before the evening’s guests comes out such as Andy Richter for Conan O’Brien or chat across the stage as Jimmy Fallon does with his announcer, Steve Higgins (whose name I did not know) or engaging the bandleader as Stephen Colbert does with Jon Batiste. Perhaps, if you are slightly older, the late night sidekicks you may remember the most would be David Letterman and Paul Shaffer or the timeless sound of Ed McMahon heralding Johnny Carson.

In business, the # 2 or second-in-command position is often thought of as a COO, Vice-President, General Manager or Assistant. But sometimes, more importantly, it’s not the title that matters, but what the position is intended to do to support the business. This is never more apparent than in fast growth companies where an entrepreneurial owner/CEO is striving to push the upper limits of what she and her company can do. In my book, Tandem Leadership, I lay out four, distinct Leadership types for business leaders and their #2’s – Entrepreneur, Consultant/Fixer, Professional and Lifer/Trainee. In the past two weeks, I shared my thoughts on Alexander Hamilton as the Entrepreneur and Mary Poppins as the Consultant/Fixer. This week, our late night sidekicks help us to understand the value and purpose of the Professional #2.

The Professional #2 is someone who typically is found at the top of their own field or profession and generally well-regarded. Different than the Entrepreneurial #2, these second in commands are most likely not thinking about eventually becoming a #1. They enjoy the #2 role because it connects them to the leadership vision without the attention and scrutiny that fall upon the #1 Leader.  In fact, many take this position because they feel as if they can get more done as a second-in-command instead of being in the Captain’s chair. Different than the Entrepreneur or Fixer, the Professional #2 more often than not has the potential for longer tenure with his #1 leader.

Because of this longevity, the #1 and #2, can be often be remembered together as a team. After Ed McMahon passed away, Conan O’Brien remarked that, “It is impossible, I think, for anyone to imagine ‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson’ without Ed McMahon.” But, even with the Johnny and Ed’s inseparable dynamic, you would never have expected them to switch roles to hear Johnny announcing, “Here’s Eddddddd!”

In business, today, I think there is no more powerful example of this #1 and #2 combination as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg has been at Facebook for over eight years now – a lifetime in Silicon Valley. One could contend she is also one of the most high-profile #2’s with her Lean In movement and reflections after her husband’s passing last year. But, she is still the #2 to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. When interviewed about their relationship, Sandberg said, “It’s all about communication. We spend the beginning of the week together and the end of the week together and we talk in between. He knows what he wants to work on and what he wants to delegate. We’re really complementary.”

Professional #2s typically are exceedingly competent and even-keeled. While they may understand and appreciate the value and genius of their CEO or leader, they have no desire to take over that role – at least in the near term. This results in detailed focus on systems and optimization which often creates stability for the company. When this is in place, I have often heard from owner/CEOs, “I can go to sleep at night knowing that “X” knows what he is doing.” In being complementary, they usually work best with Entrepreneurial leaders who can clearly articulate their vision, understand the value of regular or planned communication and can delegate. Professional #2’s will not stay long when those key three elements are not in place. Conversely, the Entrepreneurial and Consultant/Fixer #2 will tolerate deficits in these areas by their CEO’s because they tend to have some of those tendencies themselves. And, like their leader, they think the circumstances that created those lapses are completely justified.

As we know, there is no “right” way to staff every company or even throughout the history at the same company. In the beginning it may be necessary to have an Entrepreneurial #2 who can bend and weave as the terrain dictates and grow into his own #1 position within or outside the company. The Consultant/Fixer is the go-to #2 when there is a crisis or a specific or short-term opportunity to address. The Entrepreneurial CEO and Professional #2, like Zuckerberg and Sandberg or Carson and McMahon, are the models for companies with clear vision and investment in the future and placing a value on stability.

In the end – understanding your leadership style as well as the challenges before your company, will ultimately determine the most effective type of #2 for you.