We’re all familiar with the vital role seconds-in-command play in making family businesses effective. While the CEO or Executive Chairperson sometimes may seem to “walk on water”, the Executive VP or COO often holds the organization together in the everyday. The second-in-command is sometimes an external hired professional, sometimes one of the next generation in the family firm. The second-in-command is the person the CEO and the board of directors trust to manage the organization’s operation and daily routine. Seconds-in-command also serve as a bridge between the CEO/executive directors and staff to ensure that staff concerns are heard and resolved. For sure, seconds-in-command are indispensable members of family businesses. But what happens to seconds-in-command when they’re promoted to fill an executive vacancy in the organization? Are they effective in this new leadership role? The answer isn’t entirely self-evident. While a second-in-command may have an excellent understanding of how the organization works operationally, some fail as chief executive officers – at least in the short term.
Why does this happen? The answer lies at the core of the CEO’s role. This role is less about functional tasks like planning and execution. Instead, it’s more about setting the strategic vision, stakeholder management, assuring overall effectiveness and responding to a changing environment.
When selected to be CEO, many seconds-in-command have challenges in three vital leadership areas:
**Leadership Area 1:** Communicating a vision, including a mission statement, core values, and a strategy for the future. They might understand the vision intuitively, however, they’re sometimes unclear about this vision in external communication, or have a myopic view of the organization and its demands. In their second-in-command role, they focused on programmatic and technical details. This new "big-picture" view often pushes them out of their comfort zone.
**Leadership Area 2:** Communicating with staff so that they understand and fulfill the mission statement. Communication is about presenting information so that it’s clear and understandable. It’s about using feedback to be sure employees comprehend the message. Helping staff understand why a new organizational direction has been charted, for example, creates “buy in” rather than staff “push-back.”
**Leadership Area 3:** Motivating and empowering employees to become the best they can be through self-actualization. Newly appointed leaders often fail to engage employees enough to build the necessary consensus. The employees are the lifeblood of the organization. Leaders can’t exist without an organization. New leaders need to nurture employees, offer intrinsic rewards, and empower them to make autonomous decisions. Such an approach promotes more than just good will in the organization. It creates a real sense of community and organizational accomplishment.
Seconds-in-command who replace departing chief executives bring many strengths, including familiarity with the mission, organizational culture, and a unique preparedness for the task. It’s important to recognize, however, that they also bring some potential weaknesses. The transition may be bumpy, but seconds-in-command can become more quickly effective leaders by focusing on the three key leadership areas described here. Doing so will ensure a successful transition from manager to leader!
**Concluding remarks: What Makes a Leader?**
It’s imperative that family businesses equip seconds-in-command with essential leadership skills. The way to do so is by creating a climate that promotes personal leadership development. Here´s more advice to inbound CEOs:
* **Think strategically:** Work with others in the organization to establish organizational goals and objectives.
* **Act systematically:** Connect everyone’s work to the organization’s mission, vision, and goals. Help people see how the values of the organization align with their own personal values.
* **Learn by doing:** Foster an environment of continuous learning, including opportunities for personal growth, for everyone in the organization. Leadership development is a form of life-long learning.
* **Lead by walking around:** Leadership begins and ends with relationships. Connecting with key players in a personal way helps gain commitment and energizes employees to develop shared aspirations.
* **Guide by providing and seeking constructive feedback:** Let go in the doing, but never in the guiding. Being aware of yourself and how you affect everyone around you is essential for effective communication.
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