For many great characters in fiction, the unheralded assistant was often the key figure behind the scenes keeping their heroism on the right track. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, Sherlock Holmes had Dr Watson and Batman had Robin. Increasingly, chief information officers are likewise recognising the benefits of having a well-established second in command. Far from being a corporate "mini-me", there are benefits both for having and being a deputy CIO. While there is plenty of industry conjecture about an IT skills shortage of programmers and graduates, also quietly festering is the issue of a lack of a strong second tier of senior executives ready to take over the CIO reins.
It can hamper a CIO's own prospects of promotion when those working in lower management have no clear route to executive positions. But those organisations that have a clear succession plan for the IT throne are able to provide employees with transparency about the skills needed to get into the chair.
A number of current CIOs at larger organisations took what was perceived to be a step back from a CIO position in a smaller organisation to make the step up in larger businesses. However, be warned, a deputy's role is a significant challenge and is not always a guarantee of an easy ride to the top.
HSBC appointed former deputy CIO Brenton Hush to the position of CIO earlier this year.
He had spent 18 months wearing the deputy badge under Chuck Stegan, who left to act as HSBC's regional IT head, based in Hong Kong.
Hush says the role of deputy CIO was new to HSBC before his appointment. The deputy title stuck as he found his role expanded to take on more responsibility for parts of IT operations, including the data centre, telecommunications and developing and implementing a shared-service IT usage model.
NSW Department of Health CIO Mike Rillstone announced his direct successor in former Accenture consultant Craig Smith in September last year.
All three - Rillstone, Hush and Smith - agree that the deputy's role can be a dog's job but is necessary in order to understand the business's nuances and the politics of surviving in the executive suite.
Both Hush and Smith say the two characteristics of the job are pain and challenge. However, from a career outlook, working as a deputy would hopefully put them in the running as future CIOs, Smith says.
"Everyone has to question the deputy position - whether it is appropriate to do the hard slog and know the specific environment and people, and to create a work ethic people know you for - versus gaining experience in another environment which may just look good on paper," he says.
"Nothing is more damaging to any party than being an incumbent [if relationships with other parts of the business aren't working properly] ... but from a career progression point of view, I hope the opportunity to work as deputy would put me in the running for the CIO role in the future."
Like the CSO title for chief security officers, CIOs believe the role of a deputy is often a de facto role undertaken by someone without an official title. The deputy title may be largely overlooked in Australia, but recruitment consultants consider hiring for such a position to be the hallmark of a stable and steady IT employer.
Paul Rush, CIO practice leader with recruitment firm Talent2, says there are two main issues dogging further adoption of the deputy CIO title in Australia.
First, the changing role of the CIO means some organisations are reluctant to create a direct career path for the title.
Second, the role is heavily dependent on the state of the business - whether it is a technology investor, or whether IT is attuned for growth or cost cutting.
Rush says if an organisation is unhappy with its CIO, or is ambivalent towards IT, it is unlikely to consider hiring or promoting someone internally to a deputy position.
The "old-school" technicians are not regarded as the right fit to take the company forward, Rush says. He believes organisations regard the existence of an heir to the IT throne as a necessary form of executive risk management. It is a task, he says, which traditionally has not been done very well at all.
"My experience has been that the vast majority of organisations in Australia don't have a solid succession plan at the CIO level, and if you look at the role of the CIO versus the next layer down, the skill sets [lower down] are quite narrow.
"You have someone looking after IT operations and services, someone else responsible for software development and applications, and maybe someone like the head of relationship management on the side to push a more business-focused IT model," he says.
In this "traditional" IT model, those in the chain below the CIO do not possess the broad experience needed to make a direct succession to a C-level position. Therefore, giving the employees below the CIO the experience and exposure to different parts of the business is essential in deciding whether they can make the grade.
Rush says CIOs are often wary of bringing in an ambitious upstart who will be snapping at their heels. The last thing management wants is to employ an ambitious and driven potential CIO who will rip and replace everything, undoing the hard work the previous CIO put in, in order to make a name for themselves.
Indeed, he believes as well as having someone with a strong operational background it is vital to find a deputy who is a potential leader and willing to learn. More important, Rush says, is finding someone who is willing to put heart and soul into getting to the top job.
Ideally, the deputy should have skills that complement the existing CIO's. Rush suggests the position is not all limelight but one based on hard work.
"The deputy will work in the shadow of the CIO for six months and have to attend board meetings and steering committees in their place, and ... it is highly likely the deputy will have to hold down the job they were employed to do as well."
When the NSW Department of Health's Rillstone hired Smith in September last year, succession planning was top of mind - but not because he was looking for his next job. He saw the position as a way to bring in a trusted insider he had worked with before.
Rillstone says the deputy position is seen as an executive band-aid - a second point of contact for day-to-day decisions. Succession planning comes second and is designed to ensure the technological direction he has instigated is taken up by his offsider.
"If you have a large portfolio, to be really effective you need to delegate, not just tasks and outcomes but leadership," Rillstone says.
"The role is also about ... succession in the sense the IT department continues to move forward and to expand the control and influence of a single leader across the whole business.
"This is a huge ask with our geographical areas, so from my perspective the deputy position is about delegation of leadership, succession planning and having an offsider with command and control functions."
Rillstone says the deputy role is like doing an apprenticeship all over again but one more attuned to learning the politics of the enterprise and how to manoeuvre between competing issues to get a job done.
He believes it is an area the deputy, possibly a former CIO stepping up into a bigger organisation, or an internal candidate, should be comfortable with before taking over the reins.
"We can assume the deputy is good at an infrastructure level and should already be comfortable with managing projects, but chief-executive politics may be something they have not had broad experience in," Rillstone says.
Rillstone's deputy, Craig Smith, sees the position as a way to take on added responsibility. Smith, who specialised in the health and life sciences industry at Accenture, worked directly with the department as a consultant developing business cases to secure funding for strategic projects and says he was familiar with the "not-so-soft" skills needed to succeed among the executive set.
Smith says he found consultancy frustrating at times, being "all advice and no responsibility" and saw the deputy CIO position as a way to take ownership of IT projects and effect change from the other side of the fence. Choosing the position over the financial lures on offer for consultants means he is there for the long haul.
"There is no point being deputy if you are looking to get up skills and then move elsewhere," Smith says.
"People said coming from consultancy into a government department will be a challenge but I have worked in government for the last 15 years, so regardless of where I work or who I belong to ... nothing too much has changed."
Hush's appointment to CIO at HSBC came as a direct promotion from the position of deputy CIO, which he held for 18 months, after leaving the General Pants group where he was CIO for two years.
Hush says he has not appointed a deputy CIO himself but the bank has developed a succession plan through the internal relationship management team.
He is in charge of exposing the new talent to the executive level and expanding their roles to ensure they complement his own skills - much like the process he went through himself. He is responsible for picking his successor.
Hush says his rise to CIO was an expansion of responsibilities for which he became the sole representative until he eventually took over from Chuck Stegan.
The initial scope of the deputy position was very specific, Hush says. He was in charge of establishing HSBC's relationship-management model and developing and shaping the shared services approach to IT. As those projects matured, Hush picked up responsibility for the IT operations area as well as the data centre, desktop server and telecommunications. After 12 months his role grew as he became the heir apparent.
The dawning moment, Hush says, was when the executive group realised he was the sole point of responsibility when Stegan was unavailable.
"The bank typically recognised a second in charge of IT but the deputy role was not something we had here before and it was created to give transparency around succession planning for the CIO title," Hush says.
"In my experience in the IT industry, the deputy CIO is not something you see a lot of but in this situation it has worked very well. The business peers would say that as well but the deputy has to go through a lot of pain and challenge.
Why you need to appoint a deputy CIO
- As Mike Rillstone, CIO of NSW Department of Health suggests, it's always easier to hunt in a pack - so arm the IT team with an executive attack dog.
- Hiring a deputy is an ideal way to cement your IT decisions for the next decade - or with the next generation of leaders.
- A deputy will ease some of your decision-making responsibilities.
- It's an ideal opportunity to hire someone with skills to complement your own.
- Push yourself: a deputy will keep you on your toes.
- Demonstrating the need for succession planning to the business will keep morale high.
- Hiring a deputy creates a clear progression ladder to the top job - and is proof the right skills and hard work will earn the CIO title.
- Hiring a deputy could be a good risk-management strategy and a fallback measure should you get sick. Or, even worse, take a holiday.
- You can pitch the role as a way of helping you perform higher level functions in the business.
- Tenacity, drive and an overall interest in the business and the direction it is taking.
- A thick skin and the ability to take on new tasks above those outlined in their current job description.
- Desire for responsibility above and beyond their own job description.
- Personality goes a long way - hire someone whose traits you believe in.
- Someone with CIO experience, usually from a smaller organisation.
Fairfax Business Media
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