Who gets "second chair"?

Victoria Lewis




"I think I may have messed up!"  So said a partner in a global law firm in a recent Inclusive Leadership session I was facilitating. We'd been talking about critical selection decisions - you know the ones. Who gets the juicy deal, who is chosen for that important pitch, who presents that new idea to the key stakeholder and who, of course, gets "second chair" ?  First chair, the partner explained was the one on the right of the client at THE dinner, and so second chair is the other side.  Positioning is everything. The partner had "naturally" chosen first chair for himself and for the second he chose the affable extravert associate in the team - perfect to keep that special client amused.

We were talking about impact of critical selection decisions - capable of being career enhancing or career diminishing. If that affable associate messes up, rubs the client up the wrong way then we know what happens, don't we? 

Equally we know what is more likely to happen next. The client and the associate start to build the relationship. Rapport is established, similarities emerge, humour is tested out on each other, they relax, they  reveal more of themselves and so they build a deeper and broader relationship. Of course, the client wants them on the team - who wouldn't? Naturally they have to be good - merit wins the day, doesn't it? But our affable associate has been perfectly positioned - given a "leg up" and the self fulfilling prophecy takes shape. Perceptions are formed and become the reality. 

So back to the dilemma of the second chair. The issue was that our partner had only just "noticed" what had happened. At the time, he hadn't noticed the critical importance of the section decision, the fact that the output of his decision would place the associate in a position to shine and inevitably that he was deciding not to give others that same platform. Neither did he notice that his criteria was in fact "affability" and that would mean people fell out of the pool early on. The partner had explained to me that there were 7 associates who could have taken second chair but in fact based upon the affability criteria, that pool has reduced significantly to only 2!

But it was perhaps the final step that the partner was most sorry about - he hadn't explained his decision to those who had not been selected, the other person in the actual pool or indeed the 5 who never got past the criteria. Is it reasonable or even realistic to have 6 conversations with those who aren't selected? Probably not. But standing in the shoes of those 6, surely it's reasonable to understand the reason why you haven't met the criteria, and in this case, that it is likely you never will. These conversations don't need to happen after each decision, but ask yourself, do they happen in advance of the decision either? 

Inclusive leadership is about making transparent and honest decisions; ones you can explain and ones you are prepared to explore to redress the gap. That partner may have "messed up" in his selection process but he left the training room, ready to show some vulnerability for not getting it quite right, committed to thinking more about his criteria and to sitting down and having some genuine developmental career conversations.