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Is Your 2nd-in-Command After Your Job?

How to harness a subordinate’s ambition – and make it work for you.

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by Larry Dobrow

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Few things fill well-established executives with dread as fast as a second-in-command gunning for their job. Sometimes the signs are easy to read -- emails that don't get forwarded, information that is withheld -- and sometimes they're not.

What's important to remember is that, even if the threat isn't real, it's real to you. Getting past those feelings is essential to your sense of professional well-being. Here, how to evaluate the threat, channel your subordinate’s ambition -- and ultimately benefit:

Evaluate: In many instances, experts say, the threat from an underling is in the eye of the beholder. Unless you have solid evidence (withholding information, taking credit for your successes or otherwise undercutting you) that your second-in-command is angling to snare your job and push you aside, don't overthink the situation. "Try to separate observable behavior from the story you are creating in your mind," suggests David Geller, CEO of GV Financial Advisors and author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. "Understand that your fear, anxiety and concern are coming from the story you created and not the facts."

     See also:  "Just Got A Younger Boss. I'm Worried."

Encourage: "Your subordinate wants to move up into your job? That's great! You have a hard-working, focused employee," says Stephen Balzac, president of management consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead and author of Organizational Psychology for Managers. Rather than view that employee as a threat, Balzac advises handpicking opportunities for the employee to shine. "Her successes are evidence that you are capable of thinking beyond your own job and in the best interests of the team and of the larger company.”

Groom: "It is incumbent upon all leaders to identify and prepare their successors. A company can't be in a situation where it does not have bench strength," says Tom Armour, a founding partner of management consulting firm High Return Selection. "Athletic coaches are recognized by how many champions they produce, colleges by how many top people are among their graduates and martial-arts masters by how many black-belt students they've trained." A second-in-command who understands he's being groomed for something bigger will be less inclined to resort to undermining behavior.

Reveal: While many bosses belong to the don't-show-your-hand-until-you-have-to school of managerial communication, they'd be better off if they opened up, says Arron Grow, author of How to Not Suck as a Manager, who encourages managers to talk with their reports about their own plans and goals. "More experienced members of an organization are sometimes thought of as 'almost done' or 'about ready to retire,'" he explains. "It is important that eager underlings have a clear understanding that you are ready to help them grow and develop as much as possible, but not necessarily with a plan of having them take your place."

     See also: How to Like Your Job Better Than You Do

Monitor: Stay alert to important signs. Good: when the ambitious second-in-command openly communicates his intentions ("In every one of my experiences, the individuals who have wanted my position have come right out and said it. Though that might seem threatening to some, I rather preferred the openness," says Grow.). Bad: when subordinates ask for more detail about situations than they need -- especially ones that didn't play out as planned -- or withhold important information while claiming they conveyed it.

Relax: Take it from one successful millennial: chances are, the younger generation doesn't have you in its crosshairs. A few years ago, Sakita Holley left her job in global communications for a Fortune 100 company, partly because she was feeling "fear" from more experienced employees at her firm. "I think this is one of the first mistakes that executives make: thinking that ambitious upstarts/millennial want their jobs," says Holley, who founded and runs lifestyle PR/branding agency House of Success. "Yes, we want to be successful, but our definition of success is very different from the previous generation's definition. So while we may have our sights set on climbing the corporate ladder, we're more likely to be interested in creating a new role altogether than filling our bosses' shoes."

Photo credit:  Shilpa Harolikar/Getty Images