So, CTO, Who's Your Sarah Palin or Joe Biden?

Even in the nuts-and-bolts world of tech execs, choosing a right-hand man (or woman, of course) can be as politically challenging as anything going on in the halls of Washington, D.C.

The right right-hand person can help your high-tech projects soar to new heights today and take care of your legacy when you leave tomorrow. The wrong one, though, can blur your technology vision to the brass, rankle the rank-and-file, and, worst of all, under-deliver on sweeping technology projects and initiatives -- in other words, make your life a living hell.

[ Readabout the dismal state of IT workers, plus how the financial crisis affects IT jobs. | Seeking IT career advice? Rely on Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog at InfoWorld. ]

So how do you pick a running mate, a protégé, a No. 2, someone you can depend on? Perhaps the most important quality this person should possess is an absolute ability to execute, a hands-on pro who grasps the nuances of both technology and diplomacy, and gets stuff done.

The Role of the No. 2

"The No. 2 keeps the trains running, while the CIO is concerned about where the trains are going," says Martha Heller, managing director and recruiter of technology leaders at executive search firm ZRG. "This person needs to fit in culturally with the organization and have the respect and relationships across the board to be able to fill in when the CIO is traveling -- essentially representing the CIO."

But choosing a No. 2 is fraught with risks. Too often, tech execs value a candidate's industry experience or a particular technology skill set over broader technology expertise and soft skills. A No. 2, for instance, may need to be able to succinctly summarize technical information to the board of directors without using mind-numbing acronyms. Tech execs also sometimes fail to spot obvious cultural misfits, such as a candidate who likes to run roughshod in a family-owned company.

Another role of the No. 2 is to take over if the tech exec moves up the corporate ladder, leaves for another company, retires, or is hit by a bus. In these cases, a good No. 2 is ideally suited to move into the No. 1 spot. "They have a view into each part of the organization so that their perspective is broad enough if there comes a need for a successor," Heller says.

To be fair, most CTOs and CIOs don't give such succession planning much thought. A few years ago, staffing firm Robert Half Technology surveyed some 1,400 CIOs and found that only one in five did succession planning.

Tech Skills Versus Soft Skills

Chuck Kramer, senior vice president and CTO of Social and Scientific Systems, doesn't have a successor yet. But he does have eight right-hand folks, each overseeing a technical area: security, enterprise systems, software development, bioinformatics, and three operation sites. Two out of the eight are under consideration as his successor, although they still have a ways to go. "What they need, and what is often lacking, is assistance in strategic planning," Kramer says.

It's an endemic problem when looking for a No. 2, agrees Heller. And that's why the vast majority of times, she says, a tech exec will look outside of the organization for a right-hand person because internal candidates lack strategic thinking. "The [inside] bench often has narrowly focused technology skills and not enough executive presence," she says. "Also, by going outside, there's an opportunity to bring another perspective to your IT organization. It's a very valuable moment."

On the technology front, Kramer's eight deputies are all pretty technically savvy -- and not just in their area of expertise. When choosing them, he made sure that they could explain how their projects would fit into the overall business. "They must see the big picture, rather than only their fiefdom," Kramer says.

A bad No. 2 who is in love with a particular technology may not be able to adapt to the changing needs of an IT organization or even make fair decisions about the technology stack that the tech exec has spent years building. Love for a particular technology vendor can be just as wrongheaded. On the other hand, a good No. 2 candidate should be able to show leadership in vendor reviews, SLA enforcement, and cost savings.

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