Running a business can be lonely; all of us have weaknesses and blinds spots. A good first officer fills the gaps, gives you someone to brainstorm with and someone to hold you accountable. After a while, a good first officer can “take the bridge” so you can enjoy some much needed shore leave.

Over the years, I have had a number of people fill that role. They have had different personalities, different styles, and different skill sets. I have learned there isn’t one perfect first officer, but there are some good techniques to finding and cultivating that officer so that they are successful and so are you.

What Are Your Blind Spots?

I am a bit of a geek, so you will have to forgive my Star Trek references. Captain Kirk was brash, emotional, and decisive. His “ready, fire, aim” approach often landed him in hot water. The thoughtful, logical Mr. Spock was a perfect balance, forcing Kirk to stop and think things through.

In contrast, Picard was often cold and detached. He relied on his first officer, Riker, for the “human touch.”

Unfortunately, you can’t just whip up someone with exactly the opposite DNA to create a mirror reflection. And in truth if you did they would make you completely crazy. Instead make a list of all your weaknesses. Then pick the one or two you know you aren’t likely to change and make those required skills for your next first officer.

So what about you? What are your weaknesses?

  • If you are fast, look for someone who is accurate.
  • If you prefer to work alone, find someone who enjoys getting out, meeting people and managing staff issues.
  • Maybe you are an optimist. You believe every project will be easy, every client will pay on time, and you can always get everything done in the time remaining. While the positive attitude is good, you definitely need someone to raise a red flag when they see a potential obstacle in the path.
  • If you are a big picture person who sees the objective and the general path, but not the steps to get there, then you need someone strong on process. Without someone to think
    th­rough and execute the details, your ideas will be just that, ideas.

As for me, I am an outgoing extrovert who is comfortable with filling in the blanks and making cognitive leaps. While I like to have fun, in a business setting I focus on the task and facts before the people and their feelings, and I tend to jump to conclusions. My best first officers have often been cautious introverts who help keep my enthusiasm in check.

Fight, Listen, and Learn

It isn’t easy working with someone who views the world differently. You find yourself answering tough questions and defending your ideas. The ones who hold up under scrutiny are the ones worth pursuing. This will only work if you can keep your ego in check, accepting the fact that you don’t always know the best answer

Grow a First Officer

While large companies have the budget to gamble on senior managers recruited from the outside, small businesses do much better with homegrown talent. Ideally, you should identify someone in your organization who has potential and bring them along slowly.

  • Start by delegating small tasks which they will own. Be prepared. They will not do the task exactly the way you would have done it. As you review their work, ask yourself if their solution is wrong, better, or simply different. As you try to cultivate their leadership skills, you need to be willing to accept different solutions as long as they are viable.
  • Problem solved, but don’t punish. People make mistakes. You need to create an environment where people are not afraid to fail. If they know the most important thing is fixing the problem–not assigning blame–they will be more likely to take risks. When things go wrong, it is okay to reach out to help them think through possible solutions. Just avoid the temptation to take over and resolve the issue for them.
  • Start documenting what you do. It is hard for someone to take over some or all of your responsibilities if there is no clear outline of what you do. Reviewing how you do things with someone else opens up opportunities to evaluate and simplify your processes or eliminate unnecessary steps.
  • Bring them along for the ride. Over the years, you have probably developed a network of peers and strategic partners. Start bringing your candidate with you to formal and informal meetings. They need to know the people you trust and rely on. It will be helpful for them to see how you interact with each of your key advisors. Ultimately, they will create their own circle, but understanding whom you have chosen and why will help them make good decisions about their advisory circle.
  • Develop action / coaching plan – Identify skill gaps and traits that interfere with their ability to lead. Look for appropriate training classes and opportunities for them to practice key skills. Getting a great first officer will free you up in the long term, but it is going to take a lot of work in the short term.
  • Test drive multiple candidates – If you are fortunate enough to have more than one potential candidate, give both people opportunities to expand their skills. Remember Captain Picard actually had both Commander Riker and Counselor Troy. Each brought something unique to the bridge.

One final note. Finding a first officer is vital to the long term success of your business, so it is important to be sure you have the right candidate, someone who really wants the job. While there is no guarantee someone will stay with you forever, it is good to have preliminary conversations about long-term plans before you head down this path. If you are serious about them being a part of your business for the long haul, talk to your accountant about developing a path to ownership.

The difference between being self employed and owning a business is whether or not revenue continues to be generated when you aren’t there. If your goal is to own a business, a strong first officer is critical to your success.

Start your search today so your business will live long and prosper.