The Second Tier

The Second Tier

We all know the superstars of sport, of politics, of business. They are lauded by the media, worshiped by their followers, applauded – not always enthusiastically – by their employees. They are ridiculously overpaid, pampered and spoiled at the start, then hounded, derided and, not infrequently, imprisoned at the end. You don’t have to be a Russian Oligarch to suffer these fates. They come to most top people in one form or another.

The consequence is a poor second tier of management and leadership. They are the people who have hitched their wagon to the correct rising star and wait to be rewarded when s/he takes the crown. They are often toadies, winning their place by loyalty rather than competence. They may also be the mediocre who would never have risen but for the support of their sponsor. It is easy to criticise top people for surrounding themselves with such dross but they, too, had a struggle to reach their throne. Well-armed competitors are the last thing they need.

They can be criticised, however, for making their Second Tier poor quality, for neglecting the succession until it is too late to choose, for not having an agreed and reasonable strategy in place when they depart. The test of great management is not how long it can survive but how soon it can prudently hand over. That process is a continuing one, seamless if well done. There should be no sudden changes to mark the arrival of the conquering hero.

Top People’s jobs are never easy. They should nevertheless make sure that one of their priority tasks is preparing properly for the handover to the next generation. This requires them to move an excellent Second Tier into place, sometimes by removing their loyal but limpid followers. They will know who those people are. You don’t necessarily have to fire them; they can be put out to grass in some sinecure job. However, preparation of the Second Tier must begin early, within a very short time of a New Top Person taking over.

The purpose of that preparation is to ensure the New Top Person is supported and challenged by Strong Direct Reports – the Second Tierers. These must be people of integrity, any one of whom could take over in an emergency. They will support their New Top Person, of course, but they will also act as a spur to improved thinking not merely an endorsement of their boss’s ideas. They must therefore be a balance between Team Player and Ambitious Leader. High intelligences – both IQ and EQ – are essential for this Strong Second Tier.

The Second Tierers should each be running important parts of the business, with P&L reporting. Staff jobs are not suitable for Second Tierers. They should be very frankly appraised at least every six months by their boss, as much in terms of their potential as of their achievements. They should be given good mentor-coaches and encouraged to attend courses to keep them up to date with technological, social and other developments.

An excellent source of Second Tierers is SMEs. These very often start as family businesses and the family background is a good one for successful business. Getting them may require an acquisition or a part-acquisition – an excellent, if somewhat novel, way of getting a good potential leader at reasonable cost. The fundamentals of business are understood by SMEs, rather better than business development, because they understand cash flow.

To support without threatening, to challenge without cringing, these are the criteria for good Second Tierers. One will follow the Top Person, some may leave to become Top People of their own organisations. All will be people of potential to make a significant contribution to developing a business.

There is no greater compliment to a Top Person than when his Second Tierers achieve greatness themselves. They are, after all, his followers.

And his friends.