Sometimes It’s Smart To Shoot For Second Place

It may sometimes seem like I’’m always pushing you in the direction of becoming No.1 — of being your own boss and having your own business. And I won’’t deny that I spend a lot of time talking about the advantages of entrepreneurship and equity. But some people are better off in the No.2 position.

Some people will have more success, make more money, achieve more, and more fully enjoy their life’’s work if there is someone else to whom they feel responsible. I sometimes believe I am one of those people. I notice that when I negotiate for myself, I’m a pushover, but when I do so on the part of a senior partner or group of people, I tend to be much more aggressive.

When it’’s just my interests at stake, I tend to relax more. I have the feeling that I don’’t need the best deal, that I can always find another, and so I’’m happy to settle. But when I’’m representing others, I feel an additional responsibility to get the deal they will like. It’’s an admission I don’t make readily. I’’d rather think of myself as independent, as the No.1 dog in the junkyard, as king of the hill.

But if I look back at my business career, I have to recognize that my greatest successes have always come out of relationships in which I was No.2. Now don’’t get me wrong. I have never been able to spend much time as an hourly worker. I’’ve always very quickly figured out how to cut myself in on the action. And this impulse is no doubt the driving force in my career. I presume you have a driving force, too — and your impulse probably feels like the need to be on top.

If so, that’’s fine, because what we are doing here with ETR will put you there. But if you tend to be more like me, your path may be slightly different. Figure Out Which Role Is Better For You. It is important to understand the difference. Because if you are a No.1 kind of guy, you will be unhappy and eventually fail as a second banana. And if you are a No.2 kind of guy, you’ll probably fail if you try to go out on your own.

The story of Pat Farrah, recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal, illustrates the point. In 1962, Mr. Farrah went to work for a building-supply store in Bellflower, California. In the challenging atmosphere of a fast-growing company, Mr. Farrah thrived, working his way up to general manager.

Then, in 1978, he tried running his own show. He rented a huge warehouse and filled it with household goods. His idea, he told the WSJ, was to “stack it high and watch it fly.”

The idea . . . as a marketing strategy . . . worked wonderfully. The store was flooded with customers. But financial controls were lacking, and the store went bust. A couple of years later, Bernard Marcus, a veteran retailer who had watched Mr. Farrah’’s brilliant failure, hired him to become chief merchandising officer of Home Depot.

As the No.2 guy in a very similar business, Mr. Farrah was able to apply his proven strategies again. But this time, he was free of the other tasks (such as balancing the books) that he didn’t do so well.

The result? Well, you know the history of Home Depot. So spend some time asking yourself, “Am I a top dog or a second banana?” Consider what you’’ve done before and where you’’ve had your successes. Ask yourself honestly, “Do I work better for myself or for someone else?” You may not arrive at the answer right away, and that’’s OK.

Most of what you will be doing with ETR . . . most of the strategies you’ll be following to achieve your dreams . . . will get you one of the top two spots. And by the time you get there, you should know who you are so you don’’t have to go through what Mr. Farrah did.

By the way, Mr. Farrah eventually left Home Depot and tried to have his own business again. Guess what? He failed again. He was hired back as assistant to the man who replaced him and very quickly worked his way back to the No.2 spot. He’s rich now — and happy. And Home Depot has profited immensely from his return. There’s no shame in being No.2. Know yourself. Move to the top. Get some equity in the business. Have a good time.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]