CIOs and IT makeovers: why many IT leaders fail to stay until the end

Many IT leaders seek to have a large IT transformation under their belts but embarking on such projects - and staying until the end - is far from easy.

Many IT leaders seek to have a large IT transformation under their belts but embarking on such projects - and staying until the end - is far from easy.

Last month, it emerged Royal Mail chief information officer (CIO) Robin Dargue resigned amid a £1.2bn transformation project he was hired to lead in late 2007.

Dargue is not the only CIO to leave in the midst of a transformation project: IT leaders in both the private and public sectors often move on suddenly and their reasons for jumping ship vary.

For some it's a simple case of promotion - John Suffolk left his position as director general of criminal justice IT to become government CIO in the middle of the £2bn criminal justice IT programme in 2006.

His boss, Ian Watmore, was government CIO before being promoted to run the prime minister's delivery unit, and has since left the civil service to run the Football Association.

Moving reasons

But not all changes are trouble-free and many move on because of frustration with their bosses, according to Robert Grimsey, director at recruitment firm Harvey Nash.

"From our experience most suffer from lack of support from their boss or business sponsor. Projects themselves may encounter difficulties, sometimes quite severe, but this alone is rarely a reason for IT executives to leave," said Grimsey.

"IT executives need the support of the business to deal with these challenges, and when that support is not forthcoming issues occur."

Connecting for Health at the NHS, which runs the National Programme for IT (NPfIT), has also seen its fair share of movement at the top - chief executive Richard Granger left in 2007 after five years to work in the private sector.

NPfIT director of programme and systems delivery Martin Bellamy also left after calling a four-year delay in the project "unacceptable". He went to work on the Cabinet Office's G-Cloud, a job which lasted less than 12 months and is now understood to have moved to a new role in the Ministry of Justice.

Take-over team

What about the people left behind? What skills do you need if you're the one taking over and attempting to finish a project? According to Grimsey, they're quite different from those needed to start a programme.

"While vision and strategy have their role, what's more important is the ability to hit the ground running, make sense of complex detail and to come up with a clear, no nonsense action plan," said Grimsey.

"IT executives don't necessarily need to win friends, but they do need to win respect and trust of their team and the business. Communication is key. And so is the ability to dish out 'tough love'."

Private sector dynamics

The private sector has also seen a flurry of IT leaders leaving large transformations unfinished.

Recent examples include BT Design CIO Al-Noor Ramji, who left the telecoms giant after introducing change in software development; Unilever CIO Neil Cameron, who departed following a global SAP roll-out and Habitat CIO Jacques Dekock who resigned following a large project to improve the retailer's online presence.

There were also examples of IT leaders who were promoted to executive roles following transformational work.

Cases in point are Network Rail former CIO Catherine Doran, who was promoted to director of corporate development, and David Lester, formerly CIO at the London Stock Exchange, appointed as managing director of its recently-acquired trading firm Turquoise.

Stepping stone

According to Kevin Walsh, a partner in Deloitte's consulting practice, IT makeovers are desirable for CIOs because they can be used as a stepping stone for another senior business function or another big IT project elsewhere, but that is not for everybody.

"These large transformation programmes require vision, business knowledge and leadership. They also demand an enormous amount of input - it is not easy to get a project like this off the ground," said Walsh.

"A lot of these projects have been about transforming and reducing costs, and you get superb experience from doing it. You become very goal-oriented and project-focused, but establishing yourself as an integral part of the business and conquering a place in the board may be equally exciting," he added.

According to Walsh, when it comes to stepping down, some leaders may feel their goals have been largely achieved, so it is time to move on. But in times of cost-containment, overall business objectives can change and CIOs may feel their function is no longer what they had initially envisaged.

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