Many of us serve in roles where we are not commander in chief, but lieutenants, captains, or even sergeants in terms of where we serve on the hierarchy of the organization chart. If you find yourself in such a role, I want to provide you some wisdom through six influence tactics to help you succeed in leading from second chair (or third, fourth, or fifth).
Here are 6 Ways You Can Better Lead and Influence from Second Chair
1. Think as the Leader Does.
The primary way to support a leader is to study his/her thinking and begin to understand the way in which that leader processes information and makes decisions. The question, “How did you arrive at this decision?” is one of the most powerful questions in your arsenal. As the leader answers, see what information he/she considered and didn’t consider in coming to the conclusion. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How did X or Y play into the decision?”
Over time, once you can approximate a leader’s way of thinking, you will be able to make decisions as that leader would make them without having to consult him/her at every point. As you consistently do this, that leader will trust you more. If you want to suggest an alternative, you’ll know how to approach him/her.
2. Know a Leader’s Fears and Concerns.
We humans are strange creatures. We are highly rational and logic-based, yet we will abandon that means of making a decision when one of our fear triggers is pulled. Rationality gets thrown out the window, and we start to drive by intuition and emotion—the classic fight or flight response.
Knowing your leader’s fears helps you avoid triggering them. Typically, a leader won’t disclose to you his or her biggest fears. Instead, you’ll have to learn a leader’s backstory, observing what past potholes he/she hit or mistakes made that caused him/her pain. (Note that this is a fear ridden experience the leader wants to avoid at all costs). Anything that looks similar to the past experience will have them intuitively steering well wide of it, even if it is the best logical choice. You’ll have to help the leader navigate his/her fears and concerns.
2. Know a Leader’s Why and the Organization’s Why of Existence.
Simon Sinek, in his well-known Ted Talk, talks about the importance of the Why—knowing why we exist and do what we do as individuals and organizations. If you know your leader’s why and the organization’s why, you can continually point out how the decision you are making on behalf of your boss and the organization reinforces that why.
The phrase, “I know X (the why statement) is important to the organization, so we need to make the Y decision in order to stay in line with our purpose,” or “I know you are personally committed to A (their personal why statement), and B (decision) best aligns with that purpose. ”
3. Ask How Much Latitude You Have on Achieving the What and the How.
Knowing how much latitude you have been empowered with to achieve the Why is crucial. Typically, the longer you are in a role, the more latitude you will be given. It is still best to get clarity as to what level or parts of a decision need approval. Is there a budgetary amount tied to a decision that requires an upper management okay? Is there a certain type of decision that needs approval; for example, something that might gain positive or negative press quickly were it to succeed or fail?
In the best situations, you have the Why and leadership trusts you with the What and How to achieve it. Openly discussing your boss’s expectations on upchain communication is important. You can as easily drive a boss crazy by pitching details he/she doesn’t feel need approval as you can by blowing past your boss with a decision that needed his/her input. Gain clarity at what level your boss wants input.
4. Know a Leader’s Communication Style.
When making decisions on behalf of the leader, you want as little friction as possible in the method to which any decision needing to be approved by the leader is made.
Sometimes this is a quick face-to-face meeting. Sometimes this means referring each decision individually in an email. I have one friend who, if sending multiple questions in an email to his boss, always got a singular “yes” or “no” in response, despite the fact that there were multiple decisions needing approval. He had no clue as to which line item was getting approval. This friend quickly learned it was better to send 4 separate emails with one question or decision for approval in each email. That way there was no question as to which was getting green lighted by his boss.
Another friend would think she had approval verbally from her boss only to have him come back and say, “I don’t remember agreeing to that.” A simple summary email after any meeting using bullet points and stating, “It is my understanding we agreed to these decisions,” helped the boss summarize in his mind, remember, and formally approve decisions.
5. Shore Up the Weaknesses of Leaders Without Under-Cutting Them.
No one is perfect. We all have weaknesses, even the CEO or department head. Knowing your first chair’s weaknesses can help you help them. Time to sell a big idea that affects the team heavily but your boss has a low level or empathy? Be empathetic without telling the team, “Yes, I know Bill lacks empathy.” Is your boss a big picture person that lacks attention to detail? Follow up with clarifying details after any meeting where things were left nebulous. Simply show the first chair your proposed details and ask, “Can I publish these on your behalf?” Once approved, proceed. Everyone will like the details, and the boss will love the fact that you help make his/her weaknesses irrelevant.
6. Sell to Leaders and Disagree Privately; Celebrate Them Publicly.
When you do have a dissenting opinion, it is crucial that you bring this to your boss behind closed doors. When selling your differing decision, be sure to show how it ultimately helps and protects both the leader and the organization. It is important the leader feels safe, or else a fear trigger of that leader might be pulled (see #2). The statement, “Let’s hash this out, but know this, once I walk out of this room, whatever decision we come to will be fully supported by me wholeheartedly,” is powerful. If the decision is of such an ethical nature or substantial enough that you feel it is imperative you agree with it but you cannot, it’s time to leave the organization.
Genuinely celebrate the leader’s strengths in public. Don’t be fake and celebrate a known weakness as a strength as that undercuts both your influence and your boss’s as people think, “Neither of them have a clue.”
You Can Influence from Second Chair
The vast majority of us lead from Second Chair or below. Don’t sell your level of influence short simply because you aren’t the primary leader. You possess vast amounts of influence, even if you find yourself in the bottom tier of an organization such as the proverbial mailroom. Start using these principles today; soon you’ll be a rising star in the organization and beloved by your superiors.