The subtle advantages of being No. 2

July 3, 2014, 5:15 PM UTC
No. 2 plaque
No. 2 plaque
Johnnie Pakington—Getty Images

Dear Annie: I’m curious about what you and your readers have to say about this situation. A close friend and colleague of mine—let’s call him Bob—was expecting, or at least hoping, to be named head of our division. Instead, the CEO position has gone to someone else who was also in the running, and Bob has just been offered the No. 2 job, reporting to the new chief.

I understand that it’s a disappointment, but he’s thinking about leaving the company, which I believe would be a big mistake. I’ve been trying to convince him that being second-in-command could be a huge opportunity for him, and well worth taking (at least for a couple of years), but I don’t think he’s listening. Your thoughts, please? — Concerned Bystander

Dear C.B.: Interesting question, and a tough one to answer without knowing a few more details. “At this level, succession planning should be transparent,” notes Richard Hytner, deputy chairman of London-based global advertising and marketing behemoth Saatchi & Saatchi. “Who is next in line to be CEO shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

The fact that it apparently did (at least to Bob) strikes Hytner as a bad sign. “Did Bob discuss his expectations with the CEO?” Hytner wonders. “If he came away from that conversation having been promised that the job was his, and it was then given to someone else, that is a serious enough breach of trust that he probably should quit and go elsewhere.”

If not, however, Hytner agrees with you that, although he may not realize it right now, Bob has just been given a terrific opportunity. Hytner has done a lot of thinking about the unique advantages of being No. 2: A few years ago, he voluntarily quit his job as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Europe, Middle East, and Africa to become deputy chairman of the parent company.

“I decided to become a deputy instead of an all-singing, all-dancing, always-deciding CEO,” he writes in his book Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. “Being second [was] my first choice. It proved the best one of my career.”

In Consiglieri (an Italian word for adviser or counselor that dates back to the Middle Ages but was made famous by The Godfather), he writes about two types of what he calls “C” executives: Those who have taken advantage of the No. 2 role to prepare themselves for the top job—think Tim Cook, who was Steve Jobs’ longtime deputy at Apple before becoming CEO—and those who value the position for its own sake.

Hytner is decidedly in the second camp. For one thing, he likes “having the time to think through a problem deeply, which most CEOs do not have,” he says. “If you are curious and contemplative by nature, and enjoy influencing strategy and events from behind the scenes, then there really is no better job.

“The problem is that being No. 2 looks like failure to many people,” he adds. “You don’t have the status and overt power, or the stratospherically high pay, of the top job. But you also don’t have the miserable, nonstop pressures that come with it. And you have a lot more control over your own time.” Hytner uses some of his freed-up schedule to teach marketing at London Business School.

But let’s say your friend is determined to reach the No. 1 spot, either at this company or somewhere else, and sees the “C” job as a step along that path. Consiglieri is packed with lively stories of how well-known CEOs made smart use of their No. 2 stints. The first thing such “apprentice CEOs” have to do, by Hytner’s lights, is take an honest look at what skills they need to sharpen before they’re seen as chief executive material.

So your friend’s first step should be to find out exactly why he was passed over for the top job this time. Hytner notes that talent development, for example, is crucial to companies now, so the lack of a great track record for hiring, inspiring, and keeping star employees sometimes trips up aspiring CEOs. “It could be that your friend has been so focused on his own career that he hasn’t brought enough people up with him—like [former Republican Congressman] Eric Cantor, who was so intent on what was happening in D.C. that he forgot to go back to Virginia and win over the voters.”

Whatever the reason he may be perceived as not ready to run the whole show, you’d be doing your friend a favor by suggesting he think twice before turning down the No. 2 job.

Talkback: Have you ever been offered a promotion that was less than you expected? How did you respond? Leave a comment below.