The Importance of an Agency’s No. 2 Person in Charge

Although the focus of many programs is on the No. 1 person in the organization, the No. 2 person can play a pivotal role in the day-to-day affairs of the agency.

by / April 16, 2010
Jacinta Quesada/FEMA

There are many names for the No. 2 person in charge of an organization: deputy, assistant director, executive officer, chief of staff and even vice president. While the focus of many programs is on the No. 1 person in the organization, the No. 2 person can play a pivotal role in the day-to-day affairs of the agency, department, jurisdiction or business.

As a director, I’ve always looked for someone who can complement my skills and abilities. Since I tend to be externally focused, I was looking for my deputy to have an internal focus.  This includes duties related to the administrative details of running an organization on a daily basis. 

These would naturally include preparing and monitoring the organization’s budget and administrative reports, and in the case of emergency management programs, grant management, which in itself can seem like a full-time job. Additionally sometimes the No. 2 person becomes the FEMA applicant agent for a federally proclaimed disaster and continues in that role for several years as recovery projects are completed.

Coordinating human resource functions also often falls to the No. 2 person. Preparing position descriptions and coordinating the hiring of new employees is a time-consuming and procedure-driven task that, if done properly, accommodates a timely addition of new staff. If steps are missed, the hiring process stretches out for weeks or months. 

In emergency management, it's especially important during emergency operations center activations that the director and deputy are in sync. It is typical for one to work the day shift and the other the night shift. It’s possible to have organizations and shifts diverge and come up with different solutions when the leaders aren’t following the same plan. Since the boss can’t be at the operation center 24/7, it is important that the execution of the mission objectives be well coordinated between the two shifts and their leaders.

There’s another challenge being second-in-command. You must follow No. 1’s lead in order to stay on the same sheet of music and not disrupt operations or confuse people and organizations. Periodic “mind melding” between the two, more often in the beginning of the relationship and less frequently as the relationship solidifies, is required to keep the agency going in the right direction.

The No. 2 also plays an important sounding board role for the boss. With a good working relationship, the director can bounce ideas off No. 2 before making announcements or taking new directions. It’s important in this dialog that No. 2 gives an honest opinion about the situation. The boss might not agree with those ideas, but it’s important that the ideas are heard. 

While some No. 2s desire and successfully move on to become head of an organization, it isn’t always the case. Some people do their best work and can have considerable influence from that lower-level position.  

If you are a second-in-command, take pride in your job. It’s likely that you are the grease that keeps the organization moving as a well oiled machine. It might just be the best job you ever have — you can have plenty of authority without having the ultimate responsibility for the organization.

[Photo courtesy of Jacinta Quesada/FEMA.]

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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