Inside the Peace Factory: A day in the life of a 2IC

The job of the second-in-command is to forgive, to reason, and to be ruthless. The fascinating and contradictory nature of those demands is a large part of why I love doing the job. It’s also a job where, if you’re doing it well, nobody notices that you’re doing it.

My objective in this article is to provide an inside view of the Agile20Reflect sausage factory, as we make some rather small and unremarkable sausages. Because it’s only now (when I’m completely confident in my ability to do the job) that I feel like I can start to explain the job with any confidence. And it’s a rewarding job that’s worth doing.

I wrote a clickbait headline

In my piece “It has begun: The war for Agile20Reflect” I painted a picture of an organization divided, at war with itself; at the end, I offered a tiny sliver of hope. It’s worth noting that I chose to portray things in a negative light because I was confident that the problems could be solved, if we got people moving in the right direction. That tiny sliver of hope (the question “What do you want?”) was something I wanted people to focus on, and to actively ask the question.

More than anything, I wanted two things from the community: recognition that we have a problem, and permission to try to fix it. One of the things a good 2IC knows how to do is to fix problems before anyone else can see them, let alone solve them. (They’re quicker and easier to fix when they’re microscopic.) However, the usual subtle tricks wouldn’t work for several reasons:

  • I am not actually the 2IC of Agile20Reflect, and therefore not able to make the usual 2IC promises with any real credibility
  • The appointment of a 2IC is an unmistakable sign of hierarchy, which is not going to be acceptable in an Agile event
  • The legitimacy of the leadership itself was being questioned

Therefore, rather than relying on legitimate authority, I had to engage in a political campaign. (I’m not a fan of political campaigns, they’re full of mud-slinging most of the time. But I do recognize that democratic oversight is important when decisions are being made that can impact a community.)

And, from a political point of view, the article was a tremendous success. People I’d never heard from before reached out to tell me that I had explained how they were feeling. People who had existing or latent disagreements with me expressed those disagreements, but they showed no signs of having new ammunition. Operationally, the conversation shifted a little bit away from “How do explain how bad we feel?” to “How do we fix the problems?”

This success created two new problems:

  • An increased public perception that something is going wrong
  • A successful campaign to become 2IC in an organization committed to non-hierarchy is a threat to the integrity of the organization

Radical transparency was successful in creating these problems. Hopefully, it can be successful in resolving them!

This article will try to convince you of two things:

  • The problems within Agile20Reflect are the same perfectly manageable problems that every organization has
  • If everyone does the work of a 2IC, then there’s no need to appoint someone in that role

To do that, I need to show you some things:

  • The difficult fun of being 2IC
  • The inevitable pain of being 2IC
  • What good 2IC work looks like
  • The consolations of being 2IC

It always starts innocently

One of the delightful replies to my clickbait article said that perhaps the Agile20Reflect said (in summary) “It might be a good idea if there was a long-form writing component to the festival.” This struck me as a really good idea, but it also made me nervous. I’m better at remembering my own good ideas, not so good at remembering other people’s good ideas. Here was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that I was listening to the community, but failing to act on the suggestion would undermine trust.

I needed to use a system to remember, instead of relying on memory. The idea of some kind of event idea registration system had been floating around for a while, but nobody had done anything. But it was 1 am, and I was going to forget if I didn’t do something, and it absolutely needed to be fair, open, and transparent. Argh!

I looked at our collection of 30 Slack channels and thought “One more wouldn’t hurt.” I created a Slack channel, ticked the convenient “Invite all” button, slapped together a description, and dumped bullet-point descriptions of every event that I had in my mind into it. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and we could fix it later.

Or could we? I received a message from the guy who had taken on the task of bringing our massive number of Slack channels under control, very politely pointing out that I had undermined his project, and could I please do things differently?

I was desperate for sleep, desperate to avoid a debate, and not at my most articulate. Meanwhile, I was dealing with someone who had a legitimate job to do, and I was undermining their work. I patched things as best I could, writing a better description for the channel, and hunting about for the non-existent ‘uninvite from channel’ button in Slack.

And then Scott made a post in my new Slack channel, saying something like “Nick this is a great idea, can you put these on an electronic whiteboard and publicize it?” (Was he responding creatively to a private complaint from the channel cleanup project? I might never know.)

I embraced the idea, said that I would create a new board, and started setting it up. All the ideas from the Slack channel went in, and I did my best to make it organized enough to be coherent, messy enough to invite collaboration. I deleted the Slack channel and went to bed grateful to Scott for saving the day. Or so I thought at the time.

It never rains, but it pours

If you’re doing your job as 2IC, you’re pissing somebody off. On a good day, you’re pissing off the competition by performing so much better than them that they have no idea how to keep up. On a bad day, you get a reply to the publicity for your new digital whiteboard that says “I’ve already put four event ideas into the existing whiteboard, why is there a new one?”

I suddenly remembered that Scott had created a whiteboard a month ago, and it obviously had some kind of event-idea-registration capability that I had been unaware of. Now, instead of risking a breach of faith with a potential new contributor, I had committed an actual breach of faith is an established contributor who had already put four ideas in. My mood crashed.

You bastard, I thought. You created that other board, and you knew I was creating this new board at your request and you let me do it. You set me up to fail and betrayed my trust in you. I massaged my face, paced around the house a little, and thought about what I was going to say.

I said, “@Scott, I will consolidate these whiteboards.” The established contributor responded “Thanks Nick,” and seemed reassured that the effort they’d put into communicating with us had not been wasted. And I trusted that Scott would become aware of what was going on (either because of my hint in public or because we would have a conversation) and appreciate my effort.

That’s the part of being 2IC that’s actually difficult. It’s understanding that the CEO gets tired and distracted too. It’s understanding that your role is to support the projects that the organization runs. If you don’t cooperate with initiatives that are seriously inconvenient, then you’re sending a signal “Your work doesn’t matter”. There’s nothing more corrosive than a leader who sends that message.

It’s putting yourself second: acting as an emotional shock absorber, limiting the flow of pain and distress through the organization so that people can focus on doing the jobs that will cure the pain and distress. It’s about smoothing over the molehills so that nobody notices they were there in the first place, and carving steps into the mountain so that the ascent becomes possible. And it’s nowhere near as emotionally demanding as being CEO.

The paradoxical comfort of being second in charge

The single most comforting thing a CEO can say is this: “I’ve listened to your advice. I think you raised several valid points. We’re going to do something else.” From that moment on, the second-in-command is off the hook. I did what I could. Now my job is to follow orders as best I can. If it all goes completely to hell, then it won’t be my fault.

Which is why the single most selfish thing a 2IC can do is to cooperate with the CEO’s instructions to the best of their ability at all times. It sends a clear and unambiguous message. You are in charge. If it all goes completely to hell, then it will be your fault.

Even better, it’s morally defensible selfishness. Because the CEO can’t get better at doing their job unless their actions have consequences. People need the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them if they are going to improve: refusing to let the CEO make decisions is to treat them as if they’re incapable of doing the job.

And a good 2IC is rare, in this self-centred age. You get to pick a mountain that you want to climb, then attach yourself to a CEO has declared their intention to climb that mountain. If you make it to the top, some people will give you more credit for that than they give to the CEO.

The other reward of being 2IC to someone who understands how to make use of your services is that you are never alone, and never solely to blame. Either the boss overrules you, or they agree with you (which means that they weren’t any smarter or insightful than you were). There’s safety and comfort in that which I never really appreciated until I took on the role of managing director, and had to do without it.

The Challenge

People get involved with volunteer projects for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes (like me at the moment) we do it because we’re looking for something less emotionally demanding than our day job, where we can put our skills to use. Other times, we do it because we want to take on increased responsibilities and unfamiliar challenges. ‘Giving something to the community’ is something we all sincerely want to do, but it’s rarely enough reason in itself (donating money would be cheaper and easier for most professionals).

What the community needs is people who are secure enough in their ability to succeed that they can devote their attention to “What do those other people need to succeed?” The easiest way to make that happen is to arrange people in a hierarchy, where veterans take on the shock absorber roles and rely on decades of good habits to help the people beneath them to find success.

But maybe there’s another way. Maybe there are ways of managing the workload of 2IC without appointing someone to a defined role. And if that way exists, then maybe Agile20Reflect is a good opportunity to find it.

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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