by Christine Celli

Why CIOs Should Clone Themselves

Aug 31, 20114 mins

CIOs who want a strategic role need to delegate. Start by training an up-and-coming leader to be second-in-command.

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could be cloned? As a mom of two small boys with a full-time job editing this magazine, I dream daily of being duplicated.

Juggling two or more jobs is nothing new for CIOs. Jon Harris spent decades in IT leadership positions, and is deeply aware of the struggles IT leaders face: finding time to be strategic, thereby proving to the board that IT can produce business benefits, while still dealing with operational matters.

For Harris, the solution is having a second-in-command. He recently retired from such a role, as CTO for the University of Texas at Arlington, and worked for many years as the deputy to city of Austin CIO Brownlee Bowmer. In Harris’s case, those high-level operations roles were in place before he arrived, freeing the CIO to deal with business issues.

For companies without such a position already on the payroll, he concedes “it’s a hard sell. The CEO doesn’t [always] get the benefit of a number two to free up the CIO to do other things.” Nonetheless, he says, “it’s critical if the CIO is going to move into the transformational role. You can’t serve two masters—one being the business, one being IT.”

If you don’t have a deputy, it’s time to start developing the role and grooming someone on your staff to take on your operational responsibilities, whether or not you can convince your CEO and board of directors to create a new position immediately.

Get Out of the Way

The right deputy, says Harris, is someone you’re comfortable working closely with who also has the respect of others in IT—both above and below them. Look for someone, for example, among your IT directors. A manager with some visibility outside of IT is also an asset, although he or she doesn’t need specific business-side experience. Once you’ve identified that person, says Harris, “The first strategy is to tell them exactly what you’re doing: ‘I’m trying to groom you to take my job.’”

Then, place your ego in check. Part of letting go of control is realizing you can’t—and don’t have to—do everything. You’ll know you’re successful when you can trust that operations are running smoothly while you focus on strategy.

Plenty of up-and-coming IT leaders want the opportunity for on-the-job training that would position them to become second-in-command or a CIO. But Harris, who mentors future CIOs through the CIO Executive Council (a peer advisory service founded by CIO’s publisher), sees few emerging leaders who have access to it. Surveys we’ve conducted in the last year suggest lack of time (39 percent) and opportunity (17 percent) are the greatest obstacles. Yet 53 percent of CIOs surveyed by the Council list developing leadership depth as a top priority. Harris thinks the disconnect stems from CIOs unable to let go a little. “I’m a victim of it myself. It’s a control thing,” he says. “Many CIOs just feel more comfortable on the technical side of things.”

Meanwhile, build the case for an official number two. You may not be able to promise your alter ego more money or a promotion right away, and she’ll have to do more work than is included in her job description. But you can promise her greater visibility, which will help to advance her career and your argument for having a designated deputy.

“Most companies will look at the bottom-line salary [of a deputy CIO role] and say no. But what happens if the CIO is hit by train?” asks Harris. “I always had a de facto number two in training.”

The real bottom line is the cost to a company when the CIO doesn’t have time to think about its future. Creating a role for a deputy who can run IT helps both your company and your career.

Contact Assistant Managing Editor Christine Celli at