The Value of a Good Deputy
Every leader needs a good right hand man (or woman). I know we all think that we’ve got it under control and that we’ll do what we need to do to make the team succeed, but the truth is we simply cannot be there all the time and we can’t allow progress to grind to a halt if we have to travel for business, go on vacation, or get sick.
On the other side of the coin, if you are not the boss, but aspire to be someday, taking on the role of deputy could be a great step up to increased responsibility! Whether you’re looking to groom your next deputy, or become your team leader’s next one, here are some characteristics of great deputies:
Understand the leader’s intent – REALLY understand it. Understand the end states the boss wants to achieve, the strategies to get there and the compromises he’s willing to make (or not make) in pursuit of the goal. A good deputy ought to be able to give the 30 second elevator pitch to anyone about what the leader’s goals and vision are for the team and how best to achieve them.
Understand the leader’s tolerance for accepting risk – this is where I’ve seen a few deputies step out too far ahead of their boss. They know what the boss wants and how he wants to achieve it, but they misinterpret how much risk he’s willing to take on to achieve the goal. This conversation should occur frequently between leader and deputy as the effort progresses and conditions change.
Exemplify the culture and values of the team – This is more important than you might think. The deputy will be expected to promote the organizational culture while you’re not there. If the deputy sets a lower or higher standard for the team while in charge, it will lead to conflict down the road among your whole team. The deputy doesn’t personally need to agree 100% with the culture and values, but is expected to uphold them in your absence.
Honest with the boss – sometimes brutally so. A solid relationship between a boss and deputy will involve many frank and open discussions. Remember that there’s a time and a place for this. Unless the situation is literally life or death of an individual or complete mission failure, open disagreement between a boss and deputy is best done behind closed doors. Have a grown-up discussion where all the issues are laid out, decide on the best course of action and agree on it before you open the door, and go out and tell the rest of the team the decision with one voice. Remember the boss gets the final say.
Empowered to act in place of the boss – and not afraid to! A good deputy should be able to take the leader’s intent for achieving the big picture and make all kinds of smaller decisions that further that end state. It is critical to understand the intent and tolerance for accepting risk when making these decisions, but with good communication between them a deputy can keep a lot moving forward when the boss’s attention is diverted by external issues.
Knows what issues he is NOT empowered to act for the boss – there are some things the leader is definitely going to want to handle himself. It can be anything, but often it’s committing the team to spending money, hiring/firing, entering the team into a formal agreement. If you’re the boss, you should make the red lines clear to your deputy. If you’re the deputy and your boss hasn’t made this clear, see understanding the boss’ tolerance for risk above.
As I’ve mentioned, these are all topics that should be discussed between a boss and deputy early and often. Like many things in life and business, communication is the key. This becomes even more critical if either the boss or deputy travels extensively, or one has significant responsibilities dealing with other organizations. It’s important to check in with each other frequently as events unfold and the situation changes.
Finally, If you aren’t authorized a formal deputy by your organization, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Give some of your team members an informal tryout to see if they have the characteristics described here, or if they can be grown. Even though you can’t give them a raise or new title, increased responsibility is a way of rewarding your top performers. You may just end up with an entire team of deputies who you are confident can get the job done while you focus on bigger goals!