IT leaders: When and how to make the case for a deputy

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might be time for a deputy to help you in critical areas. Here’s how to know when the time is right and make the business case to hire a “right hand.”

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Feeling overwhelmed as a leader certainly isn’t uncommon, especially in an era of global workforces and devices that allow us to be connected around the clock. However, there’s a difference between the general feeling of an overfull task list and taking on more work than what’s possible for one individual to handle.

Other times, this scenario isn’t accompanied by a negative feeling of being overwhelmed. As leaders, we’re usually exposed to the most exciting and challenging projects and a buffet of opportunities. It’s easy to take on a half-dozen stimulating projects and enjoy a “fly-by” role on multiple activities but do none of them well.

In both cases, it may be time to consider some sort of deputy. These roles have titles ranging from Chief of Staff to Deputy CIO to whatever other creative description makes sense for a business card. However, the goal is to augment and enhance your ability to lead effectively.

Knowing the time has come for a deputy

The idea of a “right-hand person” likely appeals to everyone. However, there are many situations where a deputy isn’t the right cure for a leader who feels like they are being pulled in too many directions. Adding another person can make the situation worse.

Generally, newer leaders get themselves into a bind by falling into one or two traps. The first is taking on every responsibility that’s thrown their way, creating a disjointed portfolio of unrelated activities that’s impossible for anyone to do well. The second is actively participating in the activities that allowed them to gain a leadership position.

Good leaders know where their energies are best deployed and will allocate projects and tasks that come their way to others when they’re not the best person for the job, even if it’s an incredibly interesting or valuable project.

Regarding the second trap, we’ve all seen the leader who still likes to manage details or run individual projects or the VP who can’t let go of their old operational role. Keeping connected to your team’s work is great, but trying to be a leader and a team member at the same time is not.

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If you’ve successfully navigated these traps but find you cannot focus and advance your agenda due to an overwhelming volume of activities, it’s time to consider a deputy. Similarly, you may be an exceptional strategist but struggle with detailed execution or have a global portfolio and cannot cover your regions on the other side of the world.

The litmus test for when it’s time to consider a deputy is when you’ve narrowed your leadership focus to the smallest possible domain yet still struggle to advance your agenda successfully.

What to look for in a deputy

When looking for a deputy, the initial temptation is to seek a “mini-me,” someone with similar skills, disposition and strengths. While this may provide good company and there are certainly merits to duplicating your skillset, hiring a deputy with different, complementary skills can usually be more beneficial.

Assess your strengths and weaknesses, a challenging exercise to be sure, but one that benefits from trusted outside views, and look for a deputy that can cover some of your weaknesses. This has the dual benefit of allowing you to focus on the activities where your strengths can be maximized (and that you likely enjoy and excel at) and allowing anything that naturally falls through that filter to get the energy and competence of your deputy.

Many of the most effective leader/deputy relationships are like the Taoist Yin and Yang, balancing each other’s skills and leadership strengths.

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How to make the case for a deputy

The search for an effective deputy can be challenging. Like most roles, the best place to start may be within the walls of your organization. Look for high-potential candidates considering leadership or looking for something new and different in their careers. For example, if you struggle with customers, someone from sales might be an interesting candidate.

When it comes time to determine where funding from the role will be found, focus on how a deputy will accelerate your organization in achieving its metrics. Whether justified or not, making the case that you’re overwhelmed and need help could be perceived as weakness. Presenting the deputy as an accelerant and an investment that will have an outsized impact on achieving your group’s goals is usually a more successful route.

With a solid link to key metrics, a complementary skill set and leadership development potential, you’ll have positioned your deputy for success, ultimately contributing to your success as a leader.