Why every CIO needs a trusted lieutenant

No CIO can do everything, which is why a reliable deputy is essential.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
A capable second-in-command is a key to success for today's CIOs.
Image: iStock
CIOs spend a great deal of time reflecting on the significance of their role to the modern business. It is a process of contemplation that comes as a serious side effect of taking on the leadership role.

The CIO position is inexorably linked with transformation. Many IT leadership hires are turnaround positions, with timeframes often limited to as little as two years. More broadly, the position of CIO is under pressure. Chief digital, or data officers are being appointed, and managers of other lines-of-business are making their own decisions regarding IT procurement.

In an age of constant change, CIOs face a tough challenge to balance the dual requirements of maintaining day-to-day operations and using IT to support business growth.

Research from market researcher Vanson Bourne on behalf of technology giant BT suggests as many as 85 per cent IT decision makers agree that the traditional CIO role is changing. The research suggests the traditional, operationally focused IT director is on life support: CIOs who want to thrive in modern business must tip towards transformation.

So what should CIOs do? One solution to the challenge is to appoint a capable number two.

A deputy should take the strain rather than your job

While some business leaders might be wary of appointing a great deputy, other CIOs argue that the support of a trusted lieutenant is the only way to cope with the demand for IT-enabled change. "Don't be scared to bring people in who are better than you are," says Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard.

"As CIO, you'll be expected to lead huge amounts of change through innovation. If that's your focus, you'll need people who can manage the infrastructure. So appoint someone, for example, who really knows what they're doing in terms of cloud and integration."

In fact, former CIO and consultant at Axin Ian Cox says that true transformation is unlikely without the help of a trusted lieutenant.

"Assess your management team," he says. "If your team is not capable, you won't have time to get outside the IT department because you'll still be spending most of your day on operational concerns. As a CIO, you need some people who will help you deal with day-to-day technology issues."

Analyst Gartner suggests increasing numbers of CIOs are appointing a COO for the IT department. However, Cox issues a word of warning. He says most companies will not be mature enough to understand how the IT department works and that a great CIO needs three or four managers for areas like architecture and vendor management.

"You will need to articulate your need for a trusted lieutenant very carefully," he says. "Unless the business understands your role in regards to wider transformation, you will put your own position under threat, especially if things go wrong. Then the organisation might assume it is the COO for IT who keeps IT running and will dispense with your services."

Defining the requirements and roles of a deputy CIO

Successful technology management, therefore, remains a careful balance. Robert Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure at ICBC Standard Bank, says CIOs must split their time between operational focus and transformation, with a 70/30 weight towards change. To concentrate on transformation, Threadgold says CIOs will always need a clear and competent number two.

"A CIO will be remembered for the transformation they have delivered, and not what they did to keep the lights on," he says. "Their focus must be on change. ‬‬‬‬‬‬To ensure that's the case, it takes the dedicated focus of one individual who is capable of taking those aspects away from the CIO, to manage by exception and to only call on the CIO when necessary."‬‬

Threadgold recognises that CIOs can only afford to look towards change if a number two covers other crucial areas. The operational environment must run smoothly, production needs to be guaranteed and key risk indicators should be maintained.

"The second in command must be trusted to work in harmony with the CIO, acting as they would in a similar scenario," he says. "In my mind, the deputy is typically the individual who is responsible for infrastructure and operations. This person normally maintains the majority of the production stack. In many organisations, these managers are now also taking responsibility for end-to-end production."

Threadgold says infrastructure and operations-focused deputies usually come from a support background. They posses experience in customer service, stakeholder management and stability. Such deputies also hold good relationships with the heads of individual lines of business.

Depending on the size of the internal team, Threadgold says it might well be the case that one in-house IT manager assumes the lieutenant position. Rather than a flat structure of four or five reports, one individual is made responsible for day-to-day operations. The other reporting managers will be still responsible for their area of the stack, but overall accountability rests with the deputy CIO.

"This management approach stops the CIO having to hold operational meetings with five business units and helps create a standardised operating model across the production stack," says Threadgold. "The CIO then works solely on the change agenda. By reducing the amount of day-to-day operational interaction for CIOs, the more business benefits they will be able to deliver during their tenure."

Trusted deputies, therefore, play a crucial role by allowing the modern CIO to dedicate more time to business transformation. It is an approach that resonates with Andrew Abboud, CIO for hospitality and culinary at Laureate Education, who says the best piece of advice he received as an IT leader came from another CIO.

"He said that every year, as a CIO, you know that there are three to five projects that have to be successful and that simply cannot fail," says Abboud, reflecting on the best practice advice of his peers.

"Make sure that you are personally focussed and engaged in these key initiatives and delegate responsibility for other projects to your lieutenants. I was given this advice 15 years ago and have applied it consistently since then."

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