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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Can the Number Two Become the Number One? Not Always!

One of the more recurring mantras in business is "never promote your best salesman to be sales manager".  My sales mentor, Phil Copp, the sage of Wythenshawe, was certainly one the best in a sales force of more that 120, and he never aspired to change and take over the top job

He was a typical and very successful operator and knew exactly where his strengths lay.  Fortunately, so did the management so they never even suggested that he move upwards.

During an interesting discussion last week with a very experienced Finance Director, he mentioned that in his past career, he had been promoted to Managing Director of a company and, in pretty short time, he realised that he just wasn't cut out for the job.

Now that is a hard thing to accept and I have the utmost admiration for an executive who knows his strengths and accepts that he actually has certain shortcomings.  Would that more people in business (and certainly politics) could be more forthcoming.

Perhaps that experience suggests that the number two position in a business is not always the best preparation for the top job.  The fact is that most CEOs and MDs arrive in the position by rising through a function, be it finance, sales, operations, manufacturing and so on.

Kenneth and Will Hopper in their wonderful book, The Puritan Gift, (http://www.puritangift.com/) emphasise that domain knowledge is essential for the successful top executive and that can only be achieved by coming up through the ranks of management.

Perhaps an important caveat is the danger of assuming that the number two position is the right preparation for the top job.   Apart from business and industry, in the annals of sport and politics there are so many perfect examples of failures of apparently competent "assistants" to be successful in assuming the leadership and driving their organisation forward.

It may be that too many number twos are so engrossed in the minutiae of their function that they cannot see the big picture; they just don't have the ability to macro-manage as distinct from micro-managing.

It's the helicopter  view of a business that has to be the view of the leader.  Anything less than that means a descent into micro-management and consequent interference with functional executives.

So what is the answer?   That other excellent book, "Good to Great", says that we must "get the right people on the bus" and that implies that succession planning must take note of the ability of managers to take a broad view of the business while, in the initial stages, running their own function effectively.

It's a big and problematical requirement but essential if the organisation is to prosper and grow.  Succession planning demands that making the right decisions in recruitment and, more importantly, spotting the talent in the organisation and then developing it, must be a primary function of the leader.

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To contact us, email to ivan.goldberg@vistage.co.uk

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