Guest blogger Lance Eliot explains what an interim CIO actually does, and how to determine the right fit.

Turnover in the C-suite, and especially for the CIO role, continues to brew in today's fast-paced, transformation-driven business climate. When a CIO position becomes vacant, firms will be without a head of IT for three to six months, or longer, while the executive search process plays out.

Recruiting the right CIO takes time. There are many hiring committee members for each finalist to meet for interviews and executive calendars can be packed with meetings and travel. Unfortunately, an unoccupied CIO seat can produce untoward IT outcomes that will have long lasting repercussions. Crucial system projects can go awry and your IT team may begin to wander aimlessly and fruitlessly.

To avoid these potential pitfalls, companies often opt to put in place a temporary, or “interim” CIO to ensure that IT operations continue unabated during the search for a new permanent CIO.

Temp to Perm CIO

A benefit of the interim CIO arrangement is that the executive can be assessed as a candidate for the permanent position while on the job. Watching an interim CIO in action for weeks or months at a time can be much more illuminating than the traditional selection process: a few interviews of relatively unknown CIO candidates and a review of their resumes.

Interim CIOs and their client firms often realize the good fit and make the arrangement permanent. But is this automatic? Certainly not. There are several reasons why the interim CIO might not get the nod for the permanent CIO slot.

  1. The interim CIO seeks only temporary assignments.
    Many seasoned CIOs consider themselves as hired guns, going from firm to firm and filling in a vacant CIO seat. These CIO mercenaries don’t like being tied down in one place for too long, and they relish variety in their professional lives, and the excitement of riding in on a white horse to save the day.

  2. The interim CIO lives where there aren’t many full time CIO jobs.
    These CIOs fly in to their client’s location for the week and then fly back home on weekend. This can be sustained for weeks or even months on a temporary basis, but for the company, it is usually not a feasible long run arrangement.

  3. The profile of the interim CIO may not match that of the permanent CIO position.
    Over time, while the interim CIO is on the job, HR and hiring executives may become clearer on what they want in their permanent CIO, and realize that the interim CIO does not match the profile. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with the interim CIO per se. She could be very successful and high performing in the temp role. But there are interim CIOs who are especially adept at fixing a troubled IT group, and not the right executive to maintain an IT group once things are running more smoothly.

What an Interim CIO Does

An experienced interim CIO realizes the need to seek clear direction from the C-suite as to what their priorities are for IT. Here are the most common goals established for an interim CIO:

1. Keep the lights on
The daily aspects of IT include making sure that all critical systems are up and available, such as e-mail,  ERP, servers and the phone system, that they are secure, critical reports are being generated, and that IT is running smoothly. This usually an interim CIO’s primary goal.

2. Plug the leaks
An interim CIO may be tasked with finding any potential errors and issues that are building up in IT, and to fix them before they become catastrophic.

3. Get stalled IT projects moving again
Prior to the interim CIO being brought in, there are often IT projects that are on hold, waiting for the necessary IT leadership to be in place. This blockage on key projects can be addressed by the interim CIO to get the pipeline going again. 

4. Tee up critical new IT initiatives
The interim CIO can lay the groundwork for critical new IT initiatives, working with the senior leadership to do a cost/benefit analysis and prepare plans for working with a new vendor or launching a new system. Once the permanent CIO is hired, she can leverage this work and quickly get underway with the projects.

5. Strengthen IT’s relationship with the rest of the business
There are frequently gaps between IT and the business, which may have been what precipated the previous CIO's departure. The right interim CIO can be charged with creating a closer partnership between IT and the business. 

6. Calm the IT team and prevent a talent exodus
Whenever there is turmoil at the top of IT, there is the threat of a mass exit by the best people on the IT team. An interim CIO with the right blend of leadership and communications skills can create and execute on a plan to calm people’s nerves and keep talent from leaving the company.

7. Prepare for the transition to an incoming permanent CIO
One of the most crucial tasks for an interim CIO is to get things ready for the permanent CIO, and companies are wise to make this a key objective for the interim. Once hired, the permanent CIO will benefit from efforts the interim CIO has made to surface and deal with important issues, and as a result, will get off to a stronger start in the role.

CIO Vacancies and the Interim CIO Fit

A quick tour of the situations that produce CIO vacancies can reveal what kind of interim CIO that a company should be looking for to bridge the gap until a permanent CIO is hired. 

1. Previous CIO was not the right fit
If the prior CIO was let go because he wasn't a fit with the organization's needs, HR and the executive leadership should examine carefully what they want from their future CIO, and seek an interim that brings some of those qualifications and skills to the assignment. The work to fully understand what defines the right CIO profile for the organization should continue after the interim is hired, and be treated with utmost importance.

2. A highly paid CIO was let go due to cost cutting
Sometimes, there is hope of finding someone with comparable skills and less career experience who will take the seat for a much lower compensation package. Firms can use the interim CIO to learn about the talent market, and gather compensation data.

3. The CIO resigned for a new job opportunity
Good CIOs are in hot demand these days and so they often jump ship for more pay or an increase in responsibility. If internal circumstances were making the permanent CIO position untenable for an otherwise well qualified IT executive, HR must work with the CEO and other company executives to resolve them to pave the way for both the interim CIO and the new permanent CIO. Otherwise you risk creating a revolving door situation.

4. The firm is considering hiring their first-ever CIO
Some firms have never had a CIO. They have instead had a director-level or VP-level IT manager. In this instance, it can be prudent bring in a CIO on an interim basis so that the organization can see what this level of executive can accomplish. HR can also learn about the kinds of skills and management styles that will succeed in the role.

5. The firm has appointed someone from the business as the CIO
Some firms place a non-CIO business executive into the CIO role, such as a trusted manager from operations or a division head. These days, CIOs need to be business savvy and possess a blend of skills, so this is a valid strategy. But inexperienced CIOs from the business can frequently get in trouble because of their lack of technical savvy. Pairing the non-CIO with an experienced, technically focused CIO hired on an interim basis for coaching and mentoring is one approach for making this arrangement work

6. A technical CIO needs business help
If the permanent CIO is highly technical, having risen up through the ranks of infrastructure or application development, they might be over their head when it comes to the strategy, finance and communications skills required of the modern CIO. Even still, this CIO may have earned the right to grow into the role, and companies that provide new challenges for their employees and provide necessary support are able to retain their very best people. An interim CIO possessing these executive skills can be hired and paired with the technical CIO for mentoring and coaching, to maximize a technical CIO’s chances of success.

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