Everyone wants to be Number One. That’s the impression that everything from advertising to pop songs to giant foam fingers are giving. In the competitive sense, we all strive for the top.
But what about the role of Number One, in the context of an independent business? It isn’t right for everyone, and it may not be right for you. In fact, holding on to the Number One spot could hurt your business, badly, if your talents and passion were better suited to a different role. As you build your business, it’s important to consider the possibility that you might just make a great Number Two.
The Role of #2
Taking the role of Number Two isn’t a demotion. This role is no less vital and no less central to a given business. It doesn’t mean surrendering ownership. You can just as easily maintain the controlling stake as the second in command, nor would your creative control have to be compromised. Your company can remain your company, as long as you find a management structure and a Number One that allow you to better serve it.
Rather than a surrender of judgment, handing off the role of CEO or Number One may be the best executive decision you can make. This is because the best Number Twos can’t meet their full potential without entrusting the overall command to a trusted colleague. There’s no Apple without Wozniak, but there’s no Wozniak without Jobs. There’s no Bulls without Pippen, but no Pippen without Jordan. No Google without Sergey Brin, but no Sergey without Larry Page.
That’s because business is an ecosystem, and that ecosystem works best when its components work in harmony, fulfilling the roles for which they’re best suited. A great Number Two is a different, not a lesser role. Depending on your professional and personal traits, it might just be the position from which you can take your business where it needs to go.
Deciding to abdicate the throne can be difficult, but only because of the perceived loss of power or influence. Once you understand that power alone isn’t the best thing you can offer to a business, the role of Number Two may begin to look like the right fit.
Where Your Passion Lies
If you find yourself more focused on the work and the product itself than on the business overall, you’re probably an ideal Number Two. This role is usually filled by someone whose first commitment is to the product, the vision, and the craft they’ve chosen to monetize. The business end, to a Number Two, is incidental to the fact that they’re doing something they care about for its own sake.
Why dilute that kind of passion with business concerns that may not even be in your wheelhouse? If you live to craft something wonderful, or provide a unique service, or help others learn something, do it! The best way to do so can often be to let someone else manage the rest, if you’re in a position to make that happen. That’s why the role is often termed “Creative Director,” to distinguish it from the more utilitarian duties. It means you can be in the business of what you love, rather than being in the business of business. In that case, it’s not giving up control. It’s liberating yourself.
Are You (Really) a People Person?
Another sign that you’re a Number Two is a dread of public interaction. Great CEOs and Number Ones are (maybe more than anything else) faces. They are there to represent the company, to interact with the public, to do the speaking and the glad-handing. The greater part of their role is to be the bridge between the company and the rest of the world. If that’s not your idea of a good time, it may be better to find someone who enjoys that aspect.
Look at the Richard Bransons and Elon Musks: these are people who clearly enjoy and excel at public interaction. They may be passionate about what they do, but a great deal of what they do is talking, meeting, greeting, explaining and proselytizing. They’re not at the office, slaving away on the product; they’re at the conference or with the press, being a face. It’s a vital role, but is it your role? Usually, the answer is more than evident.
How Thick is Your Skin?
The last major sign that you’re a Number Two is actually something common to most people: an acute sensitivity to flak. Part of Number One’s job is to be the full-time flak-taker, the sacrificial lamb for the critics, trolls and other assorted haters that almost always accompany success. If you don’t have an especially thick skin, it’s better to let someone who does stand between you and the peanut gallery, so that you can get the job done.
It’s really a unique quality, one that is very apparent in the people who possess it. Great Number Ones are almost imperturbable, able to take honest criticism with grace and watch mean-spirited attacks bounce harmlessly off the surface of their cool persona. Without this quality, someone with a Number Two’s passion for the product risks internalizing the flak, with disastrous personal and emotional results.
Business as a Collective Effort
Business is a team sport, even the entrepreneurial kind. No one has ever succeeded completely on their own. Even supposedly individual sports don’t come down to one person; boxers and tennis players are always quick to credit trainers and mentors with their success. As I’ve said before, independence doesn’t mean independence from others- it means independence from the dictates of others.
If you see your business, independent though it may be, as a collective effort, you can recognize that your first obligation is to commit your best contribution to it. If your best contribution is in the role of Number Two, you owe it to yourself and your team to play that role.
That’s not coming in second. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you know that the second in command on the Enterprise is referred to lovingly by the captain as “Number One,” despite being by all definitions the Number Two on board. If your personality and abilities fit the bill, it’s not hard to understand why.