by Polly Schneider Traylor

Do You Need a Deputy CIO?

Nov 15, 200113 mins

Jon Harris was about to politely say good-bye and hang up the phone after a hiring official from the city of Austin, Texas, informed him that the CIO job he’d been interviewing for had been filled. What the official asked next threw him for a loop: Would he come on board as deputy CIO instead? The senior IT veteran was taken aback. I’m not used to being number two, he thought. But when he learned that the new CIO was an old colleague?whom, ironically, had reported to Harris 16 years earlier?he reconsidered.

Fourteen months later, Harris and CIO Brownlee Bowmer work hand in glove, running the IT operations and strategy for Austin’s sprawling high-tech community. Bowmer spends his days navigating the politics of city government to line up support for his e-government initiative and other enterprisewide initiatives, while Harris serves as chief of operations, rallying an IT group of 200, leading major projects, and orchestrating everything from budgets and hiring to upgrades of the city’s fiber-optic network. Winding down from a 35-year career in IT, Harris is no longer sore about losing the CIO job. In fact, he enjoys working (and occasionally socializing) with Bowmer so much, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He and Bowmer spend at least two hours a day working through decisions and problems together. “It sounds like we’re in love with each other,” Harris jokes, “but we’re not.”

Harris and Bowmer arrived at their respective roles by accident: City officials decided that two CIOs with complementary skills are better than one. But some CIOs are intentionally creating operations-centered deputy CIO positions because they desperately need a senior executive who can run the shop and fight fires so that they can focus on business strategy. These CIOs?or their bosses?realize that the expanding scope of the CIO role is often too big for one person; running a tight IT outfit and leading corporate IT strategy at the same time is exceedingly difficult.

The stretched-too-thin syndrome is an outcome of IT’s growth in importance to companies. CIOs long ago moved out of back offices and into executive suites?yet even as they are charged with showing the way toward new, business-critical uses of technology, they nonetheless remain responsible for the day-to-day functioning of internal and external networks, enterprise systems and all those desktop computers. The sheer logistics of the CIO job are overwhelming, for one thing. “CIOs die on the vine of meeting management,” says Patrick Jordan, an assistant director in Austin’s IS department who works with both Bowmer and Harris.

It’s also rare to find what Price- waterhouseCoopers Consultant Chris Gardner calls double majors?IT executives who can effectively wear both a strategy hat and a technical or operational hat. Those who appear to shine in both areas are often snatched up by consultancies or vendors dangling sky-high compensation packages, says Gardner, a partner and New York group leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ management consulting IT strategy practice. Most CIOs instead succumb to fire fighting and crisis management, their best-laid plans for prioritization shelved by events, says Jerry Gregoire, former CIO and senior vice president of Dell Computer. “Every year they all say they plan to spend 75 percent of their time on strategy and 25 percent on operations, and then they up having to do it the other way around.”

A deputy CIO can overcome this planning predicament. An operationally focused number two complements the strategy-centered CIO?much like a corporate COO does the CEO?and typically oversees technology execution and maintenance, personnel and the budget. The presence of an operational chief has allowed Alan Hughes, president of business services and CIO of Deutsche Financial Services in St. Louis, to make speedy progress on organizationwide priorities. Earlier this year, he developed a new architecture framework in a matter of months?a plan he believes will provide flexibility and cost savings for the company. Meanwhile Hughes’s number two, CTO Dennis Halloran, kept the trains running on time.

Although seconds-in-command are still unusual in IS groups, the CIOs who have created number-two positions?termed deputy CIO, CTO or other title?report that they have more time to do what they love: craft big ideas and work with customers, flex their leadership muscles, and hone relationships with senior management. But there is a price to pay for this luxury: namely, dividing responsibilities and managing the ensuing internal politics and confusion. Not to mention that the CIO, not the number two, remains accountable for the technology breakdowns and blowups.

Look for a Pal

You don’t need to agree on everything, but you and your deputy are going to spend many hours together. So you’d better have above-average chemistry. For this reason, CIOs often promote a well-liked manager who has broad experience in technology and operations from within. If they must look outside, they choose someone they know and trust.

It’s also a good idea to select a partner who excels at and enjoys doing things you don’t. “I like change management, not the routine stuff,” says Bob Ridout, CIO and vice president of IS at DuPont in Wilmington, Del. While he is tied up in meetings with the CEO and external business partners, his number two, Director of IS Diane Strickler, works with DuPont’s five regional CIOs on process improvement and manages the company’s global outsourcing alliance (Accenture and CSC are the other partners).

After Ridout succeeded the company’s former vice president and CIO, Cinda Hallman, in April, he found that his external role in the company was too much to handle along with managing a global workforce of 1,100. Ridout says Strickler is “the first among equals.” He elevated her because he knew she would work well with the staff; she was a known entity, having temporarily taken over Ridout’s job once before in 1999 when he was busy with a post-Y2K strategic planning committee. The two DuPont “lifers” have worked together in varying capacities at the chemical giant since 1983, and they talk like a married couple. “There’s always a reason for what Bob [Ridout] chooses to do,” Strickler says. She knows, for instance, how he will select a team or tackle a problem. Where Ridout tends to move fast and “take the hill,” Strickler likes to solve problems more methodically, step-by-step. What makes their relationship work is shared values about what’s right for DuPont. Both firmly believe in giving the IS department a strong business orientation, for instance. “If someone makes judgments like you, you don’t hesitate to delegate to that person,” she says. Confirms Ridout: “I am very comfortable with having Diane speak for me at meetings.”

In some organizations, the yin-yang relationship is even more pronounced. Austin’s Deputy CIO Harris says, “Coworkers would describe Brownlee [Bowmer] as pensive and introverted. I am more animated, yelling and screaming, somewhat of a clown.” Yet Bowmer is the visionary who strokes egos and makes big ideas happen?specifically, the future of government services delivery. His calm, deliberate style serves him well in an environment where routine decisions such as vendor selection entail excruciating approval channels. Harris, on the other hand, is gregarious and good with people, often bringing a sense of humor to bear, and at times is hot-tempered, according to Bowmer. This opposite orientation enables the executives to win difficult battles more quickly. Earlier this year, for example, the duo established a database standard for the city’s systems in just six months?no small accomplishment given the often fractured nature of technology in government.

Divide the Sandbox

Having good chemistry is one thing. Slicing one job into two is quite another. If a CIO is unwilling to delegate some degree of decision making, the person he wants is an administrator rather than a deputy. Yet even for CIOs ready and willing to relinquish authority, defining the boundaries between the top job and the second in command isn’t always easy. When Deutsche Financial’s Hughes promoted Halloran from head of IT operations to CTO in January, he knew that handing over the bulk of daily management responsibilities would not be easy. Several months into the transition, Hughes was still deeply involved in a high-level project?which irritated Halloran. “He probably would have preferred a quicker handoff, but I didn’t want to let go of everything at first,” says Hughes, whose job now encompasses both IT strategy and internal operations.

Halloran admits that he too sometimes crosses the line. “Occasionally, I have a flash or vision that I’d like him to look at?and he might not,” he says. Other forms of toe-stepping remain. One is Hughes’ long habit of “walking the floor,” his way of checking in with key staffers on various projects. From Halloran’s perspective, this practice of his CIO confuses the staff about who is in charge. “You have a choice of letting yourself get drawn in or not,” Halloran says. “He tends to get drawn in.” For the most part, the two have worked through their differences; if one makes a decision that was in the other’s domain, they confer and go back to the staff together to clear things up.

Bowmer and Harris faced similar territorial conflicts early in their relationship in Austin. Initially, Harris viewed himself more as a co-CIO than a deputy. The resulting clashes over who had authority to do what were finally resolved when Bowmer told Harris, “There is only one CIO, and that’s not going to change.”

The process of defining who does what needs to be a daily affair, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Gardner says. CIOs and their number twos can also butt heads over decision making?if one focuses on technological factors, for instance, while the other tends to look primarily at human behavior. “The bottom line in sharing power is to create a situation where you have close collaborators,” says Gardner. Devising a common business purpose and economic incentives for people to work together are two ways organizations can foster collaboration, he advises.

Sharing power effectively is also knowing when to act as a united front, especially when it comes to credit and blame. Finger-pointing doesn’t fly; good partners try to protect each other. “Jon [Harris] usually beats himself up bad enough for both of us,” says Bowmer. “We accept each other’s human frailties and move on.”

Play Nice with Staff

You and your operational CIO are the perfect team. If only the staff could see it that way. When Ridout gave the reins to Strickler at DuPont, a few of his direct reports were upset when they learned they would be reporting to her instead. Fortunately, Ridout’s inclusive style of leadership helps ameliorate such conflicts. “There are plenty of other people who have one-on-one relationships with Bob [Ridout],” Strickler says.

Then there’s the barb of succession politics. The operational CIO may appear a threat to other talented managers in the organization who are vying for the top job. In reality, CIOs usually have several senior staffers who are candidates, and the operational chief may not have the right personality or skill set to succeed the CIO anyway. Tom Mangan, a former CIO and head of Andersen’s CIO Advisory Service National Practice, explains the conundrum: “CIOs rarely identify a number two in the department to their people because they like the competition. But the business side absolutely wants to know who the number two is.” The CEO and other executives want to know who’s ready to step in and run the critical IT systems if the CIO leaves, Mangan says.

Companies such as DuPont, which has structured succession and career development programs, may have an easier time. Promising managers in the company are tapped and trained for senior positions early in their careers, and lines of succession are more transparent. Strickler’s job was set up as a direct hit for the CIO spot?even though Strickler, 58, says she will likely retire before that day comes. If Ridout had to replace Strickler today, he would look for someone with her strong internal and external leadership skills and solid business judgment who is adept at working with senior business executives in several regions. Ridout is confident of finding that A+ rŽsumŽ within DuPont: “We have a lot of those types here.”

Another political issue inherent to having a deputy CIO is the need to educate business leaders about the changing CIO role. Nine months into their new jobs, Hughes and Halloran still receive calls meant for the other. In Austin, city managers prefer working with Bowmer, since he’s higher up the hierarchy, which makes Harris’s job difficult if he can’t get access to department heads during a project. To give Harris more exposure, Bowmer brings Harris to strategy meetings whenever possible.

CIOs may also struggle with justifying their paychecks once they give up their operational duties, which have more distinct performance metrics. “Business executives often want the CIO to do both roles,” Mangan says. Particularly during a down business market, there’s a risk that the two-headed CIO structure could attract the red pencils of the cost-cutters.

But the way Hughes looks at it, splitting the CIO job has enabled him to better justify his spot on Deutsche Financial’s organizational chart. “My focus on e-business began to identify cost savings and revenue opportunities that more than offset the additional costs associated with the promotion [of Halloran],” he explains. Hughes also believes IT has achieved better ROI because he now has time to scope out projects more accurately.

While the deputy CIO model is not appropriate for all companies and situations (see “IS Architecture,” Page 94), the emerging trend of splitting the CIO role into two jobs is indicative of the rising stature of the office. Still, IT execs have to really love playing strategist, because there will always be regrets about leaving the shop. “I used to know every project and budget detail,” Hughes grumbles. “Now I have no idea. It’s very disconcerting.” Conversely, number twos sometimes find themselves in a career quandary. “From a financial and promotions side, I’m pretty well stuck,” Harris admits.

That’s why CIOs such as Scott Ritchie of Advanced Internet Technologies in Fayetteville, N.C., prefer to keep both operational and strategy roles to themselves. “I think to some degree there is an advantage in being active both strategically and technically,” he says. “There is something lost if you don’t stay involved [operationally] at least at some level.”

Yet for CIOs who have major responsibilities and opportunities to drive business change, the transition to a strategic focus is a natural one. “As we run IT more like a business, we really need to think about the structures business has,” Ridout says. “This is a step in that direction.”