Don’t Get Stuck as Someone Else’s Second-in-Command

(credit to John Beeson HBR)
Every senior executive would love to have an Allan Taylor on his or her team. And that was the nub of Allan’s problem. For a number of years, Allan has reported to a highly visionary manager, and they made a great team. Allan has ensured consistent execution of his boss’s strategic initiatives — and is quickly falling into what I call the “first lieutenant syndrome.”
His company’s executives view Allan as a strong manager and flawless implementer, but they question his ability to create a forward-looking strategy independent of his boss. As a result, he is in grave danger of being pegged as a highly-skilled number two. Although he could have a successful career supporting other, presumably more strategic leaders, he’s unlikely to get the senior-level general management position he aspires to.
If he wants to continue his corporate climb, Allan needs to pursue two parallel courses of action. The first is to enlist his current boss’s help in finding an assignment where he can demonstrate his ability to take a leadership role in crafting strategy. He may need to move on to another part of the company to avoid being overshadowed by his boss’s reputation. Alternatively, he and his manager may be able to identify a major new initiative with significant strategic content that Allan can lead in his current position. In the latter case his boss can support Allan’s efforts by showcasing the output of his work to senior management so he develops a reputation for strategic thinking in his own right.
At the same time Allan needs to take steps to develop his “strategic gears,” so others see him as more than an executer. Often this starts with an effort to delegate some of his implementation responsibilities to others to free up the bandwidth necessary to operate on a strategic plane. To maximize his inherent strategic ability, Allan needs to make time to get out into the marketplace, connect directly with key customers, and feed his strategic intelligence — for example, by getting involved in external industry groups that share insights about marketplace and competitive trends.
Or, if most of his career has been spent in an internal or support function, he should work with his boss to engineer a move to a customer-facing position that provides a ringside view of industry dynamics at work. In addition he should brush up on his knowledge of strategy concepts and frameworks to in order stimulate his strategic thinking.
As you seek to display your “strategic gears,” think for a minute. What types of topics do your colleagues and senior managers typically hear you discussing? Details of implementation like milestones, due dates, resource requirements, and variance to plan? Or competitive activities, underlying customer needs, and new ways to create competitive advantage? What others see you doing and what you talk about speaks volumes about your interest in strategy vs. execution. As you engage in strategic dialogue with others, push yourself intellectually, become more comfortable with the “play” of ideas, and resist the temptation to jump to concrete actions prematurely — since doing so may cut you off from the creative insight that contains the seeds of a strategic breakthrough.
Strategic thinking demands a high level of abstract and conceptual skill as well as comfort dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and not all of us are endowed with the abilities required to operate at the strategic level of a CEO or head of a large operating unit. If you lack the hardwiring to be truly visionary, take steps to compensate for your deficiencies and find ways to leverage related strengths. As one highly effective senior executive told me referring to a competitor for the CEO slot, “He can just see things in the business that I’ll never see.” If that’s you, add highly-strategic people to your team and play a facilitator role in strategic planning discussions — as opposed to thinking you have to be the font of all strategic wisdom yourself.
And realize that conveying a vision to the organization is both the strategic concept and a communication task. Once your team has identified a new strategic direction, use your communication skills to break high-level concepts down into their component parts that are relatively easy to grasp, and package your message in a way that speaks to the needs and interests of staff at different levels of the organization.
If you’ve succeeded in your career to this point by becoming a master of execution, that’s great since managing predictable implementation is a core skill at any level. But to rise to the upper reaches of management you’ll ultimately have to demonstrate your strategic skills so others are confident you have the ability to generate a winning strategy for the organization.