Should you become an interim CIO?

With the recovery of the UK economy still underway, one of the trends in IT management for 2014 is the continued demand for interim CIOs

With the recovery of the UK economy still underway, one of the trends in IT management for 2014 is the continued demand for interim chief information officers (CIOs).

Interim CIOs still represent a small part of all IT leadership roles, but that is increasing. According to executive recruitment firm Harvey Nash, demand for interim CIO and top-level IT executives, such as programme managers, has gone up by over 50% – the biggest spike being in 2013.

According to Harvey Nash director Rob Grimsey, flexibility is becoming increasingly important to organisations in need of IT management skills – and using interim managers is increasingly helping support this.

“More CIOs are changing jobs and some of the resulting gaps are inevitably filled by interims. Projects that were put on hold during the recession are now coming back on stream, resulting in a demand for new skills,” said Grimsey.

“Perhaps more interestingly there seems to be a structural shift as well – companies and CIOs alike are finding it increasingly desirable to have more flexible contracts. Technology is moving at a fast pace, and so is the shape of the technology team,” he said.

A breath of fresh air

It is easy to assume that organisations hiring interims have been burned by previous CIOs who did not get the job done, but interims could help in a range of situations, such as maternity cover or unexpected loss of availability, or to act as a guiding hand to a permanent CIO.

“Not all CIOs are successful, and interims are occasionally brought in to fix problems or to help reshape the IT department. Sometimes companies simply decide to hire a CIO on an interim basis to give both parties an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’. In a nutshell, the sight of an interim does not automatically mean something’s gone wrong – in fact, it is often a very positive sign,” said Grimsey.

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Interims are typically employed for a change of direction in how technology is run, or to direct a specific project, but this is different to the change led by a permanent CIO. According to Grimsey, choosing a temporary or permanent leader should be determined by the main reason why the organisation is hiring a technology executive in the first place.

“The key thing is this – once the project is completed, how do the skill requirements change for the CIO role? If the project is never-ending and the job and skill requirements don’t really change, then hiring a permanent CIO could be the right thing to do,” he said.

“But if the project is very distinct, then hiring a permanent CIO may result in a skills mismatch later on down the line, or the CIO becoming bored as they move from the cut and thrust of major change into a more operational role.

“Interim managers, if you take them in their purest form, are fundamentally different from permanent employees. They are there to bring in new skills, and when the job is done, they hand the reigns back to the business and then leave.”

In the era of “bring your own”, are we about to see interims morphing to adapt to a new “bring your own CIO" (BYOCIO) trend, where organisations can access management expertise as and when needed?

The use of an interim CIO does not automatically mean something’s gone wrong – it is often a very positive sign

Rob Grimsey, Harvey Nash

“The concept of BYOCIO – or technology leadership on tap – is quite different from an interim CIO. Good permanent CIOs work for the good of the company at large rather than any individual division, and are happy to ask uncomfortable questions of their C-level peers, without worrying about whether their contract will be renewed,” said Grimsey.

“In theory, the BYOCIO does the same thing; the reality is that they have less of their ‘skin in the game’ and the appetite for risk taking, innovation and making bold decisions will be less. This is probably fine if the technology being managed is tactical, but if true leadership is required, then there is no replacement for a proper CIO,” he said.

The realities of interim CIO life

Ben Booth stepped down from his role as global chief information officer at research firm Ipsos in May 2012 to market himself as an interim CIO and programme director, and has since taken up assignments at companies such as credit information firm Experian and legal services company CPA Global.

According to Booth, being an interim can be a more enjoyable experience as the client will typically have a clear objective and a finite timescale, backed by top management – since interims are expensive, clients will want them to get on with the job.

“I enjoy the challenge of a turnaround and it’s satisfying to hand over to your permanent successor an operation which is in good shape, though personally it can be a bit of a wrench when you have made good friends with your colleagues,” he said.

Interim managers, if you take them in their purest form, are fundamentally different from permanent employees. They are there to bring in new skills, and when the job is done, they hand the reigns back to the business and then leave

Rob Grimsey, director, Harvey Nash

The financial aspect can also be a positive aspect of the interim CIO, according to Booth, but there are other considerations to bear in mind too.

“The interim day rates are attractive, but you have to pay your own pension contributions, insurance and other business costs. Also most interims will plan for gaps of up to six months between assignments, so you have to make provision for this,” he said.

“Businesses which understand the interim proposition will pay the going rate. Those that are looking for more of a stand-in while they recruit a permanent CIO may be less positive.”

Booth said that in leadership terms, the difficulties often faced by interims are very similar to those seen by a CIO that has just arrived at the organisation – typically there has been under-investment in people and technology, and new owners or a change of business environment mean that change is necessary.

“The challenge is more in the speed of execution, particularly in getting up to speed at the start of an assignment,” he said.

As demand for interims increases, those tempted to take the plunge and try the interim lifestyle should start preparations in various fronts. Booth gives some words of advice.

“Ask yourself if you can cope with the potential insecurity of shorter periods in a job. You also need to enjoy marketing yourself and pitching for work and enjoy the challenge of change. It’s hard to get the first assignment, so you have to have the financial cushion to survive for up to six months before you get the first role,” he said.

“It also helps to have a good network, but in my experience most opportunities come from interim providers – so you have to be persistent in getting in front of them. The idea of time off between assignments is a myth, as getting the next role is a full-time job.”

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