Column | Leadership Skills Development

The defining traits of a successful leader-deputy relationship, and how to make it happen

Column | Leadership Skills Development

The defining traits of a successful leader-deputy relationship, and how to make it happen

Jill Geisler

  • Leaders should understand the vital importance of choosing the right second-in-command.
  • When selecting a top deputy, leaders should avoid the temptation to hire someone who is too similar to them.
  • Leaders can take steps to establish an optimal relationship with their deputies and to prepare their deputies for future leadership roles.

The best leaders don’t think of their success as the product of a solo act. They surround themselves with smart deputies who share their values and have complementary skills.

They choose a second-in-command with special care. As a wise mentor once advised me, “You should be able to look out your door and see your replacement.”

When you choose wisely, your lead deputy can be your co-creator, collaborator, confidant, coach — and in-house critic. They have your trust. They have your back. And they have a defined role to play so that your individual responsibilities and span of control are clear to you and to your team.

Mistakes leaders make when choosing a deputy

Research tells us we often hire in our own image. We are attracted to people who remind us of ourselves. But neither you nor your team needs a clone of you. You need someone who shares your commitment to integrity, hard work and employee engagement while adding diverse insights, experiences and skills.

Here are some other things to avoid when choosing your lead deputy:

Don’t hire a “yes person.” Your deputy should be the person who can pull you aside and say, “I think you may have judged that person too harshly,” or “I’m sensing people are anxious about potential budget cuts but are afraid to speak up” — and you’re grateful to hear from them.

After all, you know it’s coming from a good place — a desire to nudge you in the right direction, not to undermine you.

Don’t hire a person you can’t trust. This should be obvious, but trust is the engine that drives the best leadership alliances. With trust, you can be candid and caring. You can delegate with confidence.

If you have any doubts about hiring or promoting a deputy, stop and examine your concerns. If, during a hiring interview, a prospective deputy seems overly critical of a past boss or company, or especially sarcastic or vindictive, it should raise a red flag. If you say, “Tell me about a time you had to handle a tough personnel issue,” and someone shares too many personal details about colleagues, that’s another clue that they may not be adept at handling sensitive issues.

Don’t make the mistake of placing a higher value on accomplishments than on trustworthiness. You can teach people skills, but you shouldn’t have to educate them about character.

Don’t hire a person whose gaps match yours. If you aren’t tech-savvy, you need to hire a deputy who is. If you prefer serendipity to planning but have been told you’d benefit from adding structure to your work, find a deputy who knows how to help you in that area. If you wish you were bilingual to better serve your diverse workforce, look for a deputy who brings that skill.

Making the most of deputy relationships

Deputies should know the threshold for solving a problem themselves or bringing it to you. What level of risk, expense or involvement of other departments should trigger an automatic referral to you?

Here are other considerations for turning your relationship with your deputy into an asset that benefits you and your organization:

Ensure the time you spend together is frequent, and use it to deal with bigger problems and plans. Be as transparent as you can with your deputy about the direction of the organization, especially during times of change or when multiple scenarios are being considered at the highest levels.

Share as much as you can, so your deputy doesn’t make statements to team members that need walking back or promises that can’t be kept. Such scenarios especially may arise during budget time or sensitive business negotiations.

Know your deputy as a person. Your leadership partner needs to know you’re invested in more than just workplace success, but also in that person’s work-life harmony. You may work at a frenetic pace, but don’t assume your deputy must match your every minute on the job. Measure their work ethic by their results, not their ability to keep pace with you.

Don’t undercut your deputy, even accidentally. Such a situation can arise when you, as a good leader, tell your team that your door is always open. It can become an invitation for people to bypass your deputy or, in rare cases, play you against each other.

A great boss of mine handled that scenario so well. When someone from my department asked for a meeting with him, he’d give me a quick call and ask, “Do you know what this person might want? Would you like to be in on the meeting?” It allowed me to brief him in advance of a meeting if I knew what the issue might be and to feel in the loop. Usually I’d tell him to go right ahead and meet without me, knowing he’d fill me in later.

That’s how it works when you have trust.

Preparing your deputy for a future leadership role

Leaders should always look for opportunities to showcase the skills of their deputies. Invite them to important meetings and events where they can meet higher-level management and learn how decisions are made. Invest in training to support their development. Ask your deputy a question I once heard a leader say to a group of new managers: “What would you like to be famous for?” Then identify a project that she could own, to build her reputation.

Never hesitate to shine the spotlight on your deputy’s success. After all, when you aim that beacon, a little bit of the glow spreads to you, too. And you will have earned it.

About the Author

Jill Geisler

is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, and a Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership. Follow Jill on Twitter @JillGeisler.


Do you have questions or topics you’d like Jill to address in a future article? Email Nick Hut, HFMA senior editor, at

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