Special services - how interim CIOs have become expert advisors

Interim CIOs and CTOs have transitioned into a new boutique alternative to major consultancies, and could be well placed for the post-Covid recovery

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In 2008 there were two flavours of C-level technology leader - a permanent CIO or CTO and the second was the interim CIO/CTO. Consultants, at that time, were non-permanent staff and rarely at the C-level. This is a slight simplification of the landscape. Today, the distinction between interim C-suite executives and consultants is more nuanced, and for very good reason. Permanent and as-required tech executives have reshaped. So is there still a place for the interim CIO? Or, is change management pace and scale such that a new breed of supporting actor steps in to help organisations change their narrative?

Despite, and because of the economic impact of the pandemic, organisations have a major appetite for technology-led change. Search and recruitment businesses report that demand for both permanent and interim CIOs and CTOs is healthy; saying that candidates should be optimistic, that organisations now realise that they don’t have the skills required to deliver change, and that the market for interims has exploded both sides of the Atlantic with high demand in Europe and the Americas. 

Back in 2008, interim C-suite hires often had to either come in and fight a fire as the organisation found its technology was a major risk to the business, or they took the helm of the technology department to ensure the lights stayed on whilst the business considered the place of tech and therefore its leadership in their business. Technology and change leaders today report that they are hired for a very different purpose.

"What I see most is a cry for help," says CIO Richard Steward who has held interim roles with major retailers and permanent roles in consumer goods and financial services. "An interim should be someone to fix a certain problem," adds Mark Lockton-Goddard, a former permanent and interim CIO who has held roles across Europe, and now heads up consultancy embracent. 

The pandemic has highlighted a range of business and digital problems and Lily Haake, head of the CIO practice at search firm Harvey Nash believes: "technology budgets will not fall off a cliff. In 2008 to 2009 we saw budgets decrease, but firms will not cut so deeply this time," she says. "The market is buoyant as technology and traditional business need to shift," says Adrian Wakefield, a former CIO in international engineering firms, and now a technology operating model expert who leads Transforming IT. "Being interim is really being part of the organisation and is vital at times of inflection, but advisory work is very different."

Those buying technology and change leadership are also far more well-informed about what they expect from a CIO or CTO, whether they be a permanent board-level staffer or part of a temporary programme. "We have seen a real change in client behaviour," says Darren Coomer, an interim CIO and founder of The S&A Group, a business, transformation and digital consulting organisation. 

The interim is dead - long live the interim

As with the cinema and radio, only a fool would state that the interim CIO/CTO is dead, but it is clear, the role has changed dramatically. "Traditional interims are a minority, there will always be gaps in an organisation that need someone to hold the fort," Steward says.

"The definition between an interim and a permanent CIO is changing and everybody has a more consultancy-like focus, as they need business leaders to hit the ground harder and faster," says Kersty Bletso, a partner with search provider Savannah Group. Lockton-Goddard of embracent agrees: "There are fewer of the traditional interim roles coming through, but what we are seeing is that those roles will be shorter and more punchy. The client will expect more from an interim," he says. As a result, the "freelance" CIO and CTO is now more specialised, and often goes into an organisation as an advisor/consultant. As with freelancers in many other fields, organisations commission an expert to augment their existing abilities. 

"A lot of organisations are reassessing, so, therefore, there will be a need for a wide variety of types of business technology leader as an interim, these can include the restructuring CIO, private equity firms require CIOs with due-diligence experience, there are transformation CIOs and we have even seen Brexit CIOs," says Haake. Dominic Hilleard, director of the Rethink Group has seen the rise of specialist CIO advisors in the US, and believes the trend will grow globally. Lockton-Goddard cites Hivemind, a data and technology specialist agency with a bench of former business technology leaders it can call on to help organisations with their challenges. "Syndicates are coming together and we see individuals coming up with models, tools and business approaches," says Pat Lynes, founder of Sullivan & Stanley, a change consultancy. "It is about co-creating and recognising that you don’t have all the skills, but your network does," adds Adrian Wakefield. 

Hard-wired into this new model of commissioning "interim" technology leaders is a demand from the client for quantifiable deliverables from the engagement. "A big part of our business is putting the onus on our people that they will deliver," says Coomer of The S&A Group, which operates a "firm of firms" network of experts to deliver major programmes for customers in banking, healthcare, government and transport sectors. Bletso at Savannah adds: "You need to show your ability to deliver". 

Lockton-Goddard at embracent believes that advisory organisations led by former CIOs and CTOs provide a higher level of delivery security. "There are a lot of firms that sometimes have a recruitment heritage, saying they deliver outcomes, the problem with that is it is nice to say, but they don’t have 20 years of delivery experience. You have to know what good looks like, and how to run a consultancy engagement and its processes and methods."  Coomer agrees and says the "differentiator" of consulting firms led by CIOs is the back-up of skilled people and experience at "high intensity delivery", as well as a strong customer satisfaction ethos. 

Outcomes, statements and payments

The engagement of an advisor/consultant/interim has, therefore, begun to modernise.  Coomer sees digitally savvy procurement teams getting more involved to define the outcome and CIO Steward says it's vital for the practitioner to "get the high level outcome written down and agreed in a statement of work". 

"Statements of work are evolving at a senior level as organisations move away from time and materials and towards something far more mature," says Hilleard. Lynes agrees and sees new reward models being used such as balloon payments at the end of an engagement based on delivery and sometimes risk. "The world is getting more savvy, and organisations know more about what they need, and therefore often require jigsaw pieces such as UX or the digital journey. Therefore it is a short and concise piece of work for the interim," says Lockton-Goddard. 

And as the engagements change, so too do the payments. From the balloon and risk-based payments Lynes observes, to new types of taxation. Together these are bringing about greater governance for both the consulting experts and the customer organisations as payments are tied to deliverable outcomes. Lynes adds: "The future of interim is micro-consulting and that is long over-due."