· 2 min read · Features

Second-in-command doesn't have to mean second best

Published:

As Ryanair’s deputy chief executive walks out, Nicky Little from Cirrus looks at the opportunities and challenges of being second-in-command.

Howard Millar, who is deputy CEO and chief financial officer at Ryanair, has announced he will leave the low-cost airline in December and is very open about the reason for his departure. Millar, who has been with Ryanair for more than 23 years, says that CEO Michael O'Leary shows no sign of “going anywhere soon” so he is off to find new career challenges. 

In many of the organisations we work with at Cirrus, CEOs are aiming to devolve leadership responsibility and encourage collaboration. The growing number of ‘chiefs’ in the average big corporation, such as the deputy CEO, COO, CMO, CFO and CIO are usually seen more as a team, where decision-making is shared. And more and more, what organisations are seeking when they hire these people is the ability to collaborate and connect with others in line with the business purpose and values.

The ability to implement strategy is of course an important element of these roles. So is communicating vision and goals, making them relevant to others in the organisation, and ensuring successful delivery.

For many leaders, the role at the top can be a lonely one. Second-in-commands can be supportive yet challenging partners, acting as sounding boards, and also posing the difficult questions that others in the organisation might shy away from.

When employing ‘chiefs’ or second-in-commands, values and behaviour are often as important as skills and experience. Alongside the CEO, these people are the organisation’s ultimate role models. Others look to them for consistent purpose and direction. Are they open, supportive and respectful of each other’s views? Or do they undermine each other and communicate different messages? If they do, it’s likely that others in the organisation will too.

While many second-in-commands will, like Ryanair’s Millar, have their eye on the CEO’s job, research demonstrates that the majority do not. In EY’s 2014 report, The DNA of the COO, researchers found that while 40% of COOs polled do aspire to become CEO, the majority relish the opportunity to help define the strategy that underpins a CEO’s vision, and to then take the lead in implementing it. 

The reason for this shift is the changing nature of the workplace and the wider world. One in three of the COOs polled by EY say that increased complexity and wider responsibility has been the most striking change in their jobs. The pace of change is combined with other challenges including globalisation, competition, unpredictability and uncertainty. This heady combination calls for leaders who are not only operationally efficient but also visionary, values-led and skilled at engaging others.

For ambitious second-in-commands, all of this can provide great career prospects and job satisfaction outside of the top job. For any organisation, an over-reliance on one individual – a hero leader – can prevent swift response to an unexpected departure, or a market crisis, or a great opportunity. In these situations, it makes sense to draw on the strength of collective talent. Of course many chiefs still want to be the top dog. But plenty also find immense reward in being part of a connected, influential, high-performing team.

Nicky Little is head of leadership at Cirrus