The CIO has been both pivotal and demanding. But getting a trustworthy No. 2 will help to relieve the pain. Here’s how to get the best second-in-command.
The role of the CIO is expanding rapidly. No longer a tactical leader supporting the IT stack, the CIO has become a key co-creator with business leaders.With so much at stake and on their plates, IT managers need a reliable second-in-command, someone who can provide guidance, manage critical IT, business and personnel tasks and, most importantly, be prepared to take the lead when the need arises.
However, finding a trusty No. 2 is not easy. Jobs include deep IT and business knowledge, as well as the ability to provide advice and guidance to CIO or CTO, as well as to IT team members.
Below are seven main qualities you need to look for when choosing a Deputy IT Leader.
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 strong team-building record. “The Deputy must be able to create diverse and effective teams by recognizing and cultivating talent, pursuing diverse viewpoints, engaging and upholding commitments,” says Gregory Touhill, associate professor at Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University and former CISO at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
The temperament is another attractive trait. “The No. 2 cannot be hot-headed or a doormat; they need to be able to read the situation and apply the right mix of ‘pushing the agenda’ while also being able to negotiate when needed,” says Mike Michalik, CTO of Evoque Data Center Solutions.
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 have the desire and the ability to quickly absorb vast amounts of information, to ask the right questions and to identify courses of action that are feasible, acceptable, appropriate and affordable, notes Touhill.”Excellent deputies recognize that one of their main functions is to provide the supervisor with input and alternate courses of action correctly, even though they know the input is difficult to hear.”
A No. 2 does not have to be an expert in every aspect of IT, but should have a clear understanding of existing and emerging business technology as well as key suppliers in every sector.
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.
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 appear to be polite and powerful individuals, notes Brad Willman, CIO of Entrust Solutions, IT services provider and staff increase business. “Deputy leaders need to strike a delicate balance between being someone employees want to collaborate with,While it is also an authority that employees respect and obey, “he explains.” While many second-in-commands are charismatic, there is no 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.
Good deputies are better communicators, too. “We go above and above to interact and organize,” Touhill says. “We recognize that collaboration around the company allows a stronger team and contributes 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.
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.”
Although the IT chief generally has a final call on his No. 2, it is highly advisable to seek top management support before the contract is finalized.
Someday, when the CIO or CTO unexpectedly is inaccessible, the second-in-command may need to step in to assume complete care of IT planning and operations. When there is dissension within the top ranking of the company about a candidate’s ability to ultimately become an IT manager, the new leader will find it difficult to assert absolute and undisputed authority when it is most required.
“There are many talented IT professionals in most companies, but only a few could be considered an executive CIO role,” says Matt Mead, CTO at the digital technology consulting firm SPR. “When anyone is groomed to be a second-in-command, make sure the main players are on board.”