Tips for CEOs: Why Do You Need a Great #2 (Like Sheryl Sandberg)?

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...

Sheryl Sandberg via CrunchBase

If you hang out in the world of tech startups, the buzz is constant about finding the “right” co-founder or running mate to steer your business. Quora, as just one place, spills over the a host of questions angled in that direction. (And see Jason Freedman’s good piece –Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical co-founderon the same subject.)

The co-founder idea is a fair thought – for early on.

Just don’t assume that the co-founder(s) you started a company with can or want to scale in a growing enterprise ; most can’t or want to do something else. The list of co-founders who moved on to something else is long and endless; Steve Wozniak (Apple), Vinod Khosla, Andy Becholsheim, and Bill Joy (Sun), and Lisa Thomas (Clif Bar) to name just a very few. All great talents – just perhaps not so great or interested in running a larger business.

The fact of the matter is that once the company starts to grow and scale what the gal or guy at the top really needs is leverage – somebody(s) to take an idea and execute on it.

When you’ve got a co-founder – channeling my time as a managing principal of a surviving internet development firm during the dot com boom with the four co-founders – you’ve got other minds and hearts to convince. If the phrase “unending debate and conversation” doesn’t enter your mind it should; running a company by committee is seldom a way to execute quickly or nimbly. Having a co-founder (or 2 or 3) gets you that sort of dynamic.

A great second-in-command – somebody able to take on the #1 role if needed, but not conspiring (recall the rap on Hillary Clinton when her name popped up as Barack Obama’s possible veep) every other minute to take grab leadership the stick – is priceless.

Think Joe Biden as President Obama’s go-to person, Safra Katz with Larry Ellison at Oracle, Apple’s Tim Cook with Steve Jobs, and my personal favorite, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as Mark Zuckerberg’s #2.  Smart, savvy, skilled and capable in ways their bosses may not be, these second-in-commands extend their bosses vision and the organization’s abilities.

Similar to a trusted advisor, these great second-in-command push back on their boss when appropriate (and usually in private) and can be the voice of their boss in ways that make their CEO – and the firm – more successful.

So while it’s great to find that co-founder (or two or three) for a start-up, once you start to scale it becomes important to figure out how to move on to the next organizational stage and extend – not limit – your effectiveness as a CEO.

And there’s no better tactic than finding a great second-in-command to help with the load and to help with the vision.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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