The Prodigal Altar Boy

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Prodigal Altar Boy Blog: Whither the Second Banana?


Whither the Second Banana?

sec′ond banan′a  
n. Slang
1. One, such as an assistant or deputy, who is subordinate to another.
2. One who serves as the straight man opposite the leading comedian in a burlesque.

Does being the “Second Banana” enhance or detract from your chances of snagging the top slot?  While “conventional wisdom” promotes the view that the second in command for an organization is the best candidate to replace the current leader, in practice, it’s often not the case.  Sometimes, being a “good” second banana is the reason the number two doesn’t get the top slot.

The Psychology of the Second Banana

Fact:  The skill set for a good second in command is different from the skill set of the leader.  The second definition of second banana has applications outside of show business.  A good second banana in the corporate world is often the “straight man” to the top dog.  The second in command is the yin to the leader’s yang, and will be called on to balance or ameliorate the top dog’s message, if it is too controversial.

Job one for the second banana is to support the boss.  The top bill only gets to innovate when he or she has a support person, usually the second banana, tending to all the administrivia, paperwork and staff work.  While the second banana may have to improvise in the course of getting the mundane out of the way, it still, well, mundane.

While those above may praise the deputy as the one who “makes things run,” or doing the “dirty work,” rarely is this acknowledgment a factor in considering the second banana as a viable candidate for the top position.  In the cases where the second banana is a contender for the top slot, three likely scenarios may influence that view.  Either:
  1. The person in the top slot is leaving unexpectedly and management has not had time to think about a replacement,
  2. Management has known the person in the top slot is leaving, but frittered around, hoping for a change of mind and ran out of time. Or,
  3. Management wants a successor to maintain the status quo, and/or be pliant to upper management demands.

The bottom line is the second banana brings zero innovation to any of the above scenarios above.  He or she is getting the job not because of what they can bring to the position, but because of their ability to keep the organization in “suspended animation,” maintaining the status quo. 

There is nothing wrong with transitional leadership, and in cases of scenario A, and sometimes B, the second banana is more often than not best suited to step in and provide continuity after an unexpected departure.  What the second banana must keep in mind is transitional leadership is, well, transitional.  Whatever crisis or lack of foresight that thrust you into the job will be over sooner than later and then it’s time to capitalize on the situation and cement your move to the top spot with a decisive move away from the status quo.  

When it comes to scenario C, read the handwriting on the wall, update your resume and do what they tell you until land another job.

The takeaway is a deputy should devote a percentage of effort toward innovation, independent of what the head banana may prescribe.  Spend some time examining policy, trends and the bottom line and project what you would do if you were #1 on a regular basis.  Many unprepared second bananas get overwhelmed during leadership transitions and take themselves out of contention for the top spot.  In the fast-paced business leadership game, having a personal plan for succession is the key to showing management you’re more than a support player.