Choosing to be COO instead of CEO

Posing with former Indiana Lt. Gov Becky Skillman, a strong 2nd in command, at Advancing Hoosier Women 2012.
Posing with former Indiana Lt. Gov Becky Skillman at Advancing Hoosier Women 2012.

Over the summer I had the honor of writing a guest post for Nick Arnett’s blog.  As I’ve shared before I hold two positions, one as CIC (Chick-in-Charge) of Merrfeld, LLC but also as VP of Operations for King+Knight.  This choice to be 2nd in command is very purposeful and one not everyone understands.  As you build your career, I challenge you to give this some thought.  

What if I told you the most powerful position in a company, large or small, is not the owner, President, or CEO but rather the person next in line? That’s right, the COO or Vice President is just as powerful, if not more so, than the CEO. In a society that embraces entrepreneurs, trail blazers, and risk takers it’s hard to think of anyone else being as powerful as the person with their name on the door.  But those in the top spot who are honest with you will tell you they can’t do it alone. Without a great “second in command” there’s simply no way get it all done. Without that go-to person in their corner, the business simply crumbles. That’s why I chose to build my career as a Vice President, not as a President.  You heard that right; I’ve made a choice not to put my name on the door and instead be a kick ass Vice President.

I’m asked every day, when I’m going to start my own business and stop working for someone else. Entrepreneurs are always shocked that I choose to support someone else’s company instead of my own. My standard reply is that I enjoy what I do and putting my name on the door just isn’t for me. Almost instantly you can see the confusion and the assumptions that enter their brains.  So let me debunk a couple of the myths about those of us who choose to be #2.

1.    People who choose to be Vice Presidents don’t have the guts to be entrepreneurs.

My choice to be second in command has nothing to do with my tolerance for risk or having the guts to be top dog. In fact, I’d argue that I take just as many risks, if not more, than my boss. Joining a 2 year old web design firm as Vice President meant taking huge risks professionally.  Not only did I leave a stable job in economic development but I also committed my time, energy, and earning potential to a small company and the vision of an entrepreneur.  I trust our President/CEO and firmly believe his dreams will become a reality or I wouldn’t have taken the job.  But those dreams won’t become reality without an exceptional team of people and my job is to find, train, and lead that rock star team. Making the company’s vision a reality takes guts and is a risk worth taking.

2.    People who choose to be COO’s instead of CEO’s don’t care about money.

I love money and all of the things that it can buy, especially the fact that it buys choices for my family and me. Accepting the position as Vice President in a recent start up meant taking a risk both with my future and with my finances. With great risks come great rewards. The promise of financial security as we take this company to the next level is not lost on me.

3.    People who don’t want to be in the top spot don’t desire to be powerful

The truth is the exact opposite. A career second-in-command executive understands that the power in an organization lies with the people who make things happen. Being the person people turn to when needing to cut ribbons or speak at executive luncheons has never been my top priority, though I’m often called upon to do so. My priority has always been to be the go-to person; the person that everyone knows will get it done. A client in my last company used to say, “When I need someone to cut ribbons I call your boss but when I need to get things done and know what’s really going on, I call you.” A strong Vice President always knows who the key players are, how to get things done, and who to turn to in a crisis, all while making the company and the CEO look brilliant.  Presidents and CEOs are bombarded with requests and burdens that don’t allow them the inside look into their own organizations. There’s tremendous power in being the go to person for the CEO as well as the client.

 4. 2nd place is just a first place looser

There are few phrases I find more repulsive than this one. We live in a society that is so competitive that we miss the opportunity to see the accomplishments of the team instead of the individual.  Let me be clear, I don’t believe everyone deserves a participation trophy but I do believe being a winner has little to do with being in first place.  Being a winner has everything to do with who moves the ball down the field fastest and with the fewest turnovers.

 5. Only CEO’s have big egos.

If you believe this, we clearly haven’t met yet. I have a huge ego and it’s often tied to my success, right or wrong. We all have egos, large or small, whether we’ll admit it or not. Just because I don’t put my name on the door doesn’t mean I don’t have an ego. It just means my ego’s fulfilled by something else.  Our company’s success fuels my professional ego in the same way it fuels my boss’s ego.  If anything, he’s probably better at keeping his ego in check than I am. I may not find enjoyment in seeing my name on the marquis but knowing I’ve played a key role in taking our company to the next level always matters to me.

Does it take guts to open your own business, develop your own ideas, and put yourself potentially in financial ruin to do so? You bet it does. Do you build that business, develop those ideas, or succeed financially on your own? Absolutely not. Behind every front man is a backup band. Behind every successful entrepreneur there’s someone encouraging, managing the details, closing the deal, mapping out landmines, and making sure the actual work gets done.  As every successful entrepreneur knows, the leaders within the organization are just as important as the one at the top.

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