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Your Second in Command

One of the most important relationships you will have as a leader is the one with your “right-hand man/woman.” The position of second in command can have different titles depending on your line of work: deputy, COO, operations officer or vice commander come to mind. But no matter what the title, their importance to the team’s success is pivotal. The key to finding and utilizing this individual is an essential part of your skill set as a leader. Let’s take a look at the three areas I believe are critical when trying to fill this position:

  1. How to pick.

  2. What responsibilities do they take on?

  3. What is your relationship with them?

First, the person you select will depend greatly on your company’s situation, the line of work and current organizational structure. To go into every scenario would take a book to cover so I will provide some general guidelines for how I went about selecting my operations officers during my AF career. I first reviewed the unit’s mission and goals, including the near and far term tasks to complete these objectives. During the review, I considered the team’s overall strengths and weaknesses and the direction I wanted the unit to focus on during my tenure as the leader. I also took a hard look at my own strengths and weaknesses to determine what skills, personality traits and expertise I could use help with to round out the front office. Think of this task as finding the missing piece of a puzzle that makes the team stronger and more cohesive. Setting the parameters of what I was looking for made the job of selecting the best individual all the more easier. I then had the personnel office provide me with the individuals’ resumes in the unit who were competitive for advancement. Remember, the best fit to the puzzle may be someone who isn’t internal to your team so I also asked other supervisors outside my unit for their inputs as well. Once I had the people most qualified for the position identified, it was time to do some homework and review their personnel files to become as knowledgeable of each person as possible. After evaluating their leadership potential using the 5C’s (competence, character, compassion, commitment, and courage), I matched their potential to fill the critical areas I highlighted during my initial assessment discussed previously. A couple of people immediately came to the forefront as the best fit for the job, and these are the ones I interviewed. With this effort behind me, I truly found the decision to choose the right individual an easy venture.

After I selected the person for the job, it was essential to define the roles I would like the individual to lead. Obviously, a COO or deputy should be primarily responsible for the daily operation of the unit that is linked directly to your team’s mission and goals. I put heavy emphasis on the near term tasks that must be tended to at all times so a critical failure does not occur. This allowed me to concentrate on the mid/long-term planning and course corrections to future operations. If my deputy was handling the daily operation with no problem, I would add to his/her roles a special project to research, develop and plan in order to broaden their experience and add necessary skills for further advancement. Defining the specific roles of your deputy is essential to minimizing duplication of effort and leads to good unit cohesion.

The key to this entire arrangement is the relationship you build with this individual. I made it a point to build both a professional and personal rapport with the individual. It was essential to know the “person” and their family. Taking time to understand what makes the individual tick will help refine the specific tasks and responsibilities he/she should be delegated to maximize team synergy. I also found it essential to include this person in all the unit’s supervisory lines of communication so they had all the information I received and could fill in for me on any issue. Probably the most important aspect of our relationship was the open door policy. I made it clear up front that I wanted his/her inputs and opinions on all issues facing our team. I relished ALL feedback from my operations officers and used them frequently as my sounding board for my ideas and future course corrections. I always found they had far greater perspective than I on the pulse of the group due to their different relationship with the members of our team. I also included them whenever disciplinary action was being considered. I made sure we had a frank and open discussion on the disciplinary courses of action and the planned rehabilitation of the person. In this way, we were both on the same page and had “buy-in” for the action taken against the individual. All of these interactions developed a mutual respect and trust between us that not only made us more effective but also unified our team. Next time you have the chance to pick your second in command, consider using this general process to make your selection and cultivate one of the most important relationships on your team.


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