CIO resources,  Management

7 attributes to look for in a deputy IT leader

The CIO has become pivotal — and demanding. But having a trusted No. 2 can help ease the pain. Here’s how to find the best second-in-command.

Source: CIO Magazine
The CIO role is expanding quickly. No longer a tactical leader supporting the IT stack, the CIO has become a pivotal co-creator with business leaders. With so much at stake and on their plates, IT leaders need a dependable second-in-command, someone who can offer advice, handle critical IT, business and personnel tasks and, most importantly, be ready to take the helm when the need arises.

Finding a trusty No. 2 isn’t easy, however. The job requires a deep IT and business skillset, plus the ability to provide counsel and direction to the CIO or CTO, as well as to IT team members.[ Beware the 8 most common IT training mistakes and find out how to create business-savvy IT pros. | Find out what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the IT skills and talent gap. | Get the latest CIO insights direct, with our CIO Daily newsletter. ]

Here are seven key attributes to look for when selecting a deputy IT leader.

1. Management savvy

A CIO’s lieutenant must be ready to lead team members to high levels of performance, which in today’s IT, means more than simply getting the best out of individual contributors. “The best candidate for the second-in-command position should also come prepared to juggle competing priorities, use an analytical mind to measure success based on KPIs, remain flexible to change, be open to constant learning and have confidence in their own ability to lead,” advises Joe McKenna, global CIO for Syntax, a managed cloud services company.

A No. 2 candidate should have a successful record in team building. “The deputy must be able to build diverse and powerful teams by identifying and developing talent, seeking diverse perspectives, exercising empathy and honoring commitments,” says Gregory Touhill, an adjunct faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and former CISO for the US Office of Management and Budget.

An even temperament is another desirable attribute. “Your No. 2 can’t be hot-headed or a doormat; they need to be able to read the situation and apply the appropriate mix of ‘pushing the agenda’ while still being able to compromise when needed,” explains Mike Michalik, CTO of Evoque Data Center Solutions.

2. Forward thinking

A second-in-command should be able to help the boss look down the road to spot trends and potential opportunities. This capability requires a unique combination of skills and personality, says Dave Messinger, CTO of on-demand digital talent platform provider Topcoder. A deputy “needs to drive multiple visions — technology, cultural, financial — forward with enthusiasm,” he states.

A No. 2 should possess the desire and ability to quickly absorb vast amounts of information, ask the right questions and determine courses of action that are feasible, acceptable, suitable and affordable, Touhill notes. “Great deputies recognize that one of their key roles is to appropriately provide the boss with feedback and alternative courses of action, even when they know the feedback is difficult to hear.”

3. Technology fluency

A No. 2 doesn’t have to be an expert in absolutely every IT area but should possess a deep understanding of current and promising enterprise technologies, as well as the key vendors in each area.

Cybersecurity insight and expertise is essential, however. Given the endless number of threats IT departments must defend their organizations against, a No. 2 should have a solid grasp on the latest cybersecurity tools and practices, advises Thomas P. Keenan, an adjunct professor in computer science at the University of Calgary. “I’ve been involved in a CIO panel … and that keeps coming up as a key competence that any CIO would need,” he explains.

Bassam Chaptini, CIO of Unqork, an enterprise application platform provider, recommends shying away from candidates who appear to be too focused on IT core technologies rather than on how technologies can be used to improve the business. “We work with machines, but ultimately technology is there to engage with people at some point, so you need someone who always keeps that in mind,” he observes. Client-facing skills are also important in a No. 2. “You will want someone you can depend on to represent you — and the company — in front of customers,” Chaptini says.

4. Strong leadership

Leadership qualities, such as organization, initiative and drive, are essential attributes to look for in a potential deputy. “Finding them all in one person can be difficult, but are worth searching for,” Michalik says.

Successful No. 2s tend to be amicable yet strong individuals, observes Brad Willman, CIO of Entrust Solutions, an IT managed services and staff augmentation firm. “Deputy leaders need to strike a delicate balance between being someone employees want to collaborate with, while also being an authority that staff members respect and obey,” he explains. “While many second-in-commands are charismatic, there’s not an inherent correlation between charm and leadership.”

Conventional wisdom dictates that it’s never a good idea to appoint a second-in-command who itches be the top dog, but it’s also not a good idea to turn to someone who needs the chief’s approval for every decision. “Avoid extremes,” advises Sam Maley, IT operations manager at Bailey & Associates, a UK IT auditing, consulting and management firm. “Avoid those who can’t follow rules, or those who can’t apply them outside of one specific context,” he adds.

Blind devotion to the IT chief is another negative trait. “A ‘yes person’ never makes for a good No. 2 because they won’t challenge authority and are reluctant to ask the tough questions that drive innovation,” Messinger says. “Also watch out for the overly controlling, attention-seeking second-in-command who doesn’t make big picture investor, corporate, workforce, customer and market goals top priorities,” he warns.

5. Communication skills

Great deputies are also great communicators. “They go above-and-beyond to communicate and coordinate,” Touhill notes. “They understand that communications up-down-and-across the organization makes for a better team and leads to mission success.”

The second-in-command must be able to handle multiple conversations and staff requests. “He or she must grasp and define the scope of the tasks, distill any complexities relating to the environment and integrations and, finally, drive the overall strategy through planned phases of execution,” McKenna says.

The best deputies shun the spotlight and don’t allow ambition to dilute their contribution to IT planning and operations. It’s also important for the IT leader and deputy to form a close working relationship. “The best pairings between a leader and deputy are when the leader is committed to grooming the deputy to assume greater leadership roles while the deputy is committed to supporting and learning as much as they can from the leader,” Touhill notes.

6. Business savvy

A CIO should look for a No. 2 who is business-oriented, understands finances and has an executive presence. “Most important, he or she needs to demonstrate personal excellence, a high level of self-awareness, a focus on self-development, integrity and be approachable and authentic,” says Caren Shiozaki, CIO and executive vice president for Thornburg Mortgage and a governance advisor to ISACA, an IT professional association. Ideally, the candidate should have deep experience in both business and technology. “He or she would have a successful track record in people leadership and have shown that they are self-motivated and unafraid of ambiguity,” she adds.

A second-in-command doesn’t have to be a strategic visionary, yet should be someone who fully understands the business logic of the platform the IT leader has laid out and can apply approved tactics to current and emerging problems. “With IT leaders focusing on higher-order strategic elements, deputies need to be problem-solvers and leaders in their own right,” Maley explains. Deputies should also be able to instruct team members on how to address specific technical problems, he notes.

7. Management support

Although the IT chief generally has the final call on their No. 2, it’s highly advisable to seek top management support before finalizing the hire.

Someday, when the CIO or CTO suddenly becomes unavailable, the second-in-command will need to jump in and take full control over IT planning and operations. If there’s dissention within the enterprise’s top echelon about a candidate’s ability to eventually become the IT chief, the new leader might find it difficult to exert full and unquestioned authority when it’s needed most.

“There are many talented IT professionals in most organizations, but only a few could be considered for an executive CIO role,” says Matt Mead, CTO at digital technology consulting firm SPR. “Before someone is groomed to be a second-in-command, make sure the key stakeholders are on board.”

Final point

All IT leaders must have a succession plan. “Presumably, the CEO and/or a board committee will be ensuring that is the case,” Shiozaki says. “An excellent No. 2 working for a CIO would be an ideal person to include in that succession plan.”

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