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CIO for Hire: Is This the Right Move for You?

CIO for Hire: Is This the Right Move for You?

Interim CIOs on the challenges of parachuting in and setting things right when a company needs a temporary IT leader

It's worth remembering that an interim role comes with its own special challenges

CIOs are calling me. A lot. The country's economic instability has them nervous and thinking about their next job. Most are set on another CIO role and some are ready to move into "the business."

But a significant number are intrigued by the possibility of an "interim CIO" or "CIO for hire" role. They would like to join a firm whose clients are global corporations with messed-up IT organizations in urgent need of a temporary seasoned leader. They would enjoy, they tell me, the diversity of client company engagements and the challenge of parachuting in and setting things right.

Who wouldn't want an endless array of exciting new opportunities and a chance to play the hero? Of course, it's worth remembering that an interim role comes with its own special challenges. To paint a complete picture of what such a job encompasses, I spoke with three former CIOs who joined firms that offer interim CIO services as a part of their overall IT and management consulting umbrella. They offer some guidelines for the whys and hows of making the move.

1. Why Do It?

Change is your steady state. Lisa Metcalfe experienced an epiphany of sorts as she reflected on her career as CTO at Avista Advantage, CIO at Washington Gas and VP of IS at National Wildlife Federation. "What I enjoyed most about each role took place during the first six to 12 months on the job," she says. Once she had worked through that initial period of change, the work became less interesting. "I wanted to position myself so that the most challenging part of the job would be a regular part of my career."

After testing the waters by consulting on her own for a few months, she joined Tatum LLC, a large consulting firm that, among other things, provides interim CIO services to companies in immediate need of an IT leader. At first, Metcalfe worked directly on IT engagements, but she then moved into the role of regional practice leader, responsible for business development and the overall health of the practice.

You love the work, not the politics. "As a new internal executive, you have to spend a lot of up-front time on relationship building because you are there for the long term," says Metcalfe. "The interim role is freeing because you can focus directly on the work right away."

Metcalfe acknowledges that as an interim CIO, you need to build relationships as well. But you're not there for the long haul. And, in a consulting engagement, "you have to make project work your top priority; if there is a list of projects, you have to start working through it pretty quickly."

2. What to Ask Yourself Before You Dive In

Can I handle a shorter time line for success? Steve Faas's experience includes 18 years in IT leadership roles at GE and then four years as CIO at ITT, a $7 billion industrial manufacturing company. In 2007, he joined AlixPartners, a global restructuring, consulting and financial advisory firm that includes IT leadership engagements as one of its key service offerings.

"I spent 25 years in the corporate environment, where we tended to think in terms of years, not weeks or days," he says. "At AlixPartners, we may be helping our client develop a three-year plan, but we are measured on 30 days of delivery." The focus from the long term to the short run can be jarring for executives unused to it. Be sure you are comfortable with the shift before you sign on.

Can I be a rainmaker? "When you're an internal CIO, you are constantly selling ideas, projects, a vision or the need for a budget change," says Faas. "But in this role, you are selling to develop more business." In addition to providing exemplary service on client engagements, as a consultant you will be asked to develop new business over time without the support of a dedicated sales team.

Faas has found that inviting his colleagues with more sales experience to new client meetings is a great way to secure the engagement and develop his own business development skills. His advice: "Choose a firm that has a mix of people with consulting and operating backgrounds. You can draw on each other's experience to present the best team to the client."

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