Let's hear it for number twos - the deputies, the COOs, the advisers

Many executives with the talent to go all the way have found operating behind the scenes as an adviser or deputy is just as fulfilling. We look at the discreet world of the consigliere.

by Richard Hytner, deputy chairman Saatchi & Saatchi
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

'First the worst, second the best, third the one with the hairy chest.'

That rule of the playground didn't make the rounds at my primary school. I only found out that being first might be worst, or at least second best, when I went back to school, aged 43.

At London Business School, I found that life without the CEO's armband felt like liberation. Four years later, towards the end of my tenure as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Europe, Middle East & Africa, I reflected that I was rarely happy making the big decisions, yet really happy influencing the cause. So I decided to become a deputy instead of a CEO. It was the best decision of my career.

I have wondered since why management books and organisations focus solely on the firsts, and why the seconds get little recognition. The regrettable conclusion is that the roles of deputy, adviser, counsellor or assistant are seen to be less worthwhile and less desirable for ambitious leaders. Our relationship with hierarchy remains unhealthy: you are a Number One or a Number Who?

No one person can fulfil all the duties of the boss. Even in organisations blessed with humble, self-aware, emotionally wise leaders, it takes more than him or her to lead the organisation to greatness and keep it there.

Consiglieri are advisers to leaders of Italian mafia families, made famous by Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather. In my new book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, they operate in more legitimate fields. Consiglieri - or Cs - are corporate leader-makers and leaders in their own right, performing roles in which they make, shape, illuminate and enhance the success of the A boss and the organisation.

The cast list of Cs on whom the A depends can include directors of finance, strategy, operations, HR, team leaders and others such as the chief of staff, project manager or executive assistant.

'The successful CEO usually has half a dozen people he trusts and listens to - two or three constant "deputies" - plus a handful of others who come in and out of the inner circle, depending on the business agenda,' says Ian Wright, the former corporate relations director at Diageo who worked with then-CEO Paul Walsh for 13 years.

There are some who choose the C role out of aversion to the A role. But the majority of consiglieri positively embrace their roles. They have learned the joys of influencing As whom they admire and respect. They wish to be close to power and to have autonomy to get their jobs done. They are insatiable learners and they get their kicks by being the person through whom every decision has to be made.

When a crisis arises, the A rings him up. The feeling of indispensability can be a bit of an addiction, a galvanising motivation. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, describing her dependence on Lord Whitelaw: 'Everyone needs a Willie.' For the most part, it feels good to be the Willie who's needed.

It is easy to want the top job, less easy to know whether it is right for you. Do you really wish to be an A? Or might you prefer to be a key C, who leads, influences, counsels, guides and helps the A deliver?

Karim Chaiblaine worked in A positions for the likes of Faurecia until Jean-Pierre Farandou, president and group CEO of SNCF subsidiary Keolis, asked him to become his senior adviser for strategy and international development. 'Karim brings me new ideas, enthusiasm, a different way of seeing things,' said Farandou. 'In 15 minutes, he's able to tell me a lot of things in a very efficient way.'

Paul Deighton (now Lord Deighton) was the fixer for Olympic Games frontman, Lord Coe. Deighton was a virtual unknown, operating outside the spotlight shining on former athlete Coe. 'Paul is supremely gifted and quickly grasped the complexity of the Olympic and Paralympic project,' said Coe. 'He worked tirelessly to create secure, robust relationships that gave confidence globally.'

Perhaps the C's greatest quality is an ability to subsume the ego: C leadership is a private pleasure. It involves ceding cash, status beyond a subtle association with the A, recognition, ultimate control and the ambition to be A.

'A very good adviser to a very talented boss knows he could do that job,' says Carlo Sant'Albano, chairman of the board of directors at Cushman & Wakefield. 'He has to make a decision to accept being a number two.'

The mafia kings have commissioned more than enough envy, admiration, articles and books. It's time to celebrate the consiglieri who make them tick. It's time for a C change.

- Richard Hytner is deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School. Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows is published by Profile Books on 5 June.


Former COO Max Carruthers and CEO Amanda Blanc

When Amanda Blanc was asked to join AXA in 2011 as CEO of its ailing UK general insurance commercial business, she got straight on the blower to Max Carruthers.

'The business was on its knees,' she says. 'It had a combined operating ratio of 106% - that means for every £1 of income it generated, it was losing £1.06. I had a massive turnaround job on my hands. I called Max and told him I couldn't do it without him.'

The pair had worked alongside each other for five years at specialist insurance broker Towergate: Blanc as deputy group CEO, Carruthers as operations director. 'I remember meeting Max on my first day at Towergate and asking: "What do I do? I need a phone, a desk, a computer ..." He replied: "Don't worry, I'll sort all of that out for you." That's been the history of our entire relationship. He sorts things out. He's the safe pair of hands.'

Blanc says it took her two months to persuade Carruthers to follow her to AXA. An industry veteran, he had planned on dropping out of operations and taking on a part-time role. 'I had to buy him many lunches to clinch the deal,' she jokes.

He joined her at AXA as COO and stayed in the role for three years, helping to rejuvenate the business (now with a combined operating ratio of 96.7%, it's making an underwriting profit). He stepped down at the end of last year but continues to work for her as a part-time adviser.

Blanc, in a bright red suit and killer heels, is a Welsh firecracker, who is full of energy and talks non-stop. Carruthers, 12 years her senior, is the wise old owl. Leaning back in his chair, he exudes a quiet confidence.

'I've never been a threat to Amanda; I've never been after her job,' he says. 'I've run companies before and worn all the hats (before Towergate, he was joint CEO of start-up insurance firm Rubicon Corporation). But I lost interest in fighting at the sharp end. I like people coming to me with problems and then going away and fixing them. I like taking risks. It's harder do that when you're CEO and the machines guns are pointing at you.'

Blanc says Carruthers continues to be her go-to guy whenever she needs help. 'I haven't replaced Max at AXA: the COO role was built around him. But I still call him whenever I need a sounding board.'

'He's very humble,' she adds. 'He's the kind of person that can sit by the CEO's side and give advice without craving the limelight. Not many people can do that. I trust him completely. He's always focused on what's best for the organisation, not what is best for Max.'


Deputy Editor Andrew Saunders and Editor Matthew Gwyther

Matthew Gwyther and Andy Saunders are like an old married couple. Each knows what the other is thinking, they bicker and finish each other's sentences.

MT's long-standing editor and deputy editor, Gwyther and Saunders, have been sitting opposite each other for the past 13 years. 'I spend more time with him than with my wife,' says Gwyther. 'We're like a sad old Darby and Joan.'

They're completely different characters: Gwyther is outgoing and impulsive, with a penchant for loud shirts; Saunders is thoughtful, methodical and wise. (I do think as well, Ed.)

It works. 'If I have a big decision to make, I'll always run it past Andy first,' says Gwyther. 'I tell him virtually everything and I trust his judgement. He's a scientist by background, so he has this amazing ability to explain things about technology and manufacturing that I don't understand. He's a complementary force.'

Biology graduate Saunders, who worked as a technical manager before joining the world of publishing, started out as a staff writer on MT and gradually climbed his way up the editorial echelons.

Gwyther, who worked as a freelancer for 15 years for the likes of the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and GQ, came straight in as boss in 2001.

Did that cause resentment? 'No,' says Saunders, who describes himself as a 'classic younger brother'. 'Matthew's a great editor and he's much better at the big-picture stuff. He likes the limelight and enjoys being a brand ambassador. My natural preference is to be poking around under the bonnet rather than being out there pressing the flesh.'

Although he says he enjoys his spells in the editor's chair when Matthew is away, Saunders admits that being the deputy gives him more freedom. 'My job is fairly self-indulgent. I get to do plenty of what I like,' he says. 'If I were editor, it would mean less of that.' He also accepts the limitations that come with the role. 'Matthew's in charge. If he wants to do something I don't agree with, I'll tell him. But, ultimately, his decision is final.'

Equally, Gwyther is the archetypal eldest child. By his own admission, he'd make a terrible number two. 'I'm not used to people telling me what to do,' he says. 'As the boss, the buck stops with me.'

You can't imagine one without the other. Says Saunders: 'We're better together than we would be on our own.'


Finance director Anthony Smiley and MD and founder Rob Halliday-Stein

Rob Halliday-Stein came up with the idea for BullionByPost in 2008 after his mother suddenly passed away. 'I wanted to invest my inheritance money in gold and silver rather than a bank that might go bust, but I struggled to find a bullion dealer,' he explains. 'The ones I did make contact with were expensive and rude. I saw an opportunity to shake up the market.'

He launched Birmingham-based BullionByPost the following year and has expanded it into the country's largest online bullion dealer, with 600,000 registered customers and sales of £100m.

To cope with the gold rush, Halliday-Stein decided to bring in an FD. He turned to his old school pal Anthony Smiley. The pair met when they were 11 and had stayed in touch.

'I wasn't just looking for someone with the right finance skills, I also wanted someone who would complement my personality,' says Halliday-Stein. 'I'm an entrepreneur, a risk-taker and an opportunist. I needed someone who would balance that. I thought of Anthony straight away.'

Smiley, who cut his teeth as an accountant at PwC and HSBC, joined BullionByPost in 2011. 'I didn't have any issues about my friend being my boss,' he says. 'I saw it as a great opportunity to join a fast-growth start-up and be very hands on. I'd just got married, and I was thinking about having kids. It was a case of now or never.'

Smiley is definitely the sensible one in the relationship. Although they're both 36, Smiley acts like the older, slightly disapproving, brother. 'Rob's always coming up with new ideas; he'll have a lightbulb moment when he's on the train. He gets distracted very easily. I'm there to rein him in and keep an eye on the day-to-day operations. I like to have a check list and get things done.'

They both admit that they'd be 'hopeless' at each other's jobs. 'I don't have the right skill set to be CEO,' says Smiley. 'But I don't think you have to be the boss to add value to a business. There's an awful lot to do from behind my desk.'

Although the share split is 80:20, the pair operate on a fairly equal footing. Halliday-Stein describes Smiley as his 'right-hand man' and 'co-owner'. 'We respect and value each other's opinion,' he says. 'It's not easy bringing a school friend into a business but it does mean we have a deeper level of trust than most bosses and their FDs.'

- Profiles by Kate Bassett. Photography by Julian Dodd.

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