The Case Against The Right-Hand Man

Most of us want to move forward and grow. The moment you get to management, and often before that, you start hearing things like “you need to build your team,” or “you cannot move up until you find someone to take over your current tasks,” or even “what is your succession plan?” All these little nudges are designed to make you think about how you and your team scale and take on more work and more responsibilities. You can read some of my thoughts on the topic in How To Avoid “Single Point Of Failure” Situations.

Over my career I have seen many cases of one peculiar strategy to tackle this topic. I would call it “getting the right hand man/woman”. This is a great strategy for many managers as it is the most obvious and the easiest to do. All what it requires is to pick up your successor and then work on giving him your attention, opportunities and mentoring. What do you achieve with this strategy?

  • One reliable person to turn to – it simplifies your decision making since you can automatically delegate most of your tasks to this particular person
  • Easier to communicate – it simplifies your communication since you have one person to communicate with, share ideas, and let him deal with the rest of the team
  • One source of information – it makes your life easier when you need information about what’s going on. You just go to this person and ask him to get the data you need
  • You have your successor – and most importantly when you want to move up or out you have someone who can easily slip into your shoes and continue the work without much disruption to the team

Sounds great, right? It does, until you consider the dark side of this strategy. Unless you are very careful you can easily end up in one of these pitfalls.

  • One source of information you heavily rely on – it also means that your view of the world can be seriously distorted by the views and believes of that person. You should every now and then talk also to someone else.
  • You don’t develop the rest of your team – you spend most of your time with one person and that inevitably means you ignoring the needs of the rest of the organization that may lead to instability and poor performance of the team.
  • You don’t build scalable organization – you focus so much on your successor that you don’t allow your team to scale. You are essentially just creating your replacement and that means keeping status quo when it comes to the size and abilities of your team. Shouldn’t you rather ensure that the whole team grows?
  • You are getting depended (single point of failure) – you may believe that you build some redundancy into the organization and you are not the single point of failure but unfortunately you just passed the buck to someone else. Now your successor is the bottleneck.
  • You will be seen as playing favorites – assuming you hired smart people they will quickly start questioning what is happening here. Why do you give so much attention to only one of them? You either make it official and announce that this is “the future boss”, maybe even way before he is ready, or you say nothing and run the risk of being seen as someone who is not fair and who plays favoritism.
  • You create a sense of entitlement in that person – you also got yourself into a corner that will be difficult to get from. Your successor may feel entitled to your job before he is ready or before there is a need. And if things don’t move fast enough he may get disillusioned and go somewhere else thus throwing you back to the beginning with undeveloped team and no right hand man.

When you consider all the pros and cons it becomes obvious that the concept of the right hand man is very beneficial as the last step when you decide you need a successor and need to speed up his development but is not a good strategy for a long-term development of your team.


What are your thoughts on right hand man and succession planning? Have you been in similar situations yourself? Did you have or were you a right hand man?

Photo: © Elnur / Dollar Photo Club

Categories: Career, Leadership

Tags: ,

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