The challenge of being an interim CIO
Human Resources

The challenge of being an interim CIO

A growing number of IT leaders are joining the contracting community to become interim CIOs. Temporary leadership roles come with their own obvious challenges, such as speed-learning a company’s organizational structure, technology portfolio, and politics. But the interim CIO also has the opportunity to make vital changes in preparation for a permanent replacement. Success depends in large part on company culture combined with the interim CIO’s skillset and adaptability.

Omid Shiraji, consulting CIO at Camden Council (and formerly interim CIO at the same organization) believes one of the key challenges is a misplaced perception around loyalty and longevity. “There is a negative perception that interims land with a short-term mindset; executing a specific brief and leave others to ‘pick up the pieces’ of the decisions they make, once they’ve gone,” he says.

But that isn’t what the interim CIO is about, explains Shiraji. Instead, the most successful interim CIOs think about sustainability up front and build it into their engagement. “They focus on what is right for the organization both immediately and in the long-term, and act with the accountability of a permanent leader. There is no other way to build professional credibility,” he says.


Setting expectations for interim CIOs

To begin with, everyone in the organization should be aware how long the interim CIO will be at the organization and exactly what that person is expected to accomplish.

“You know what time period you have and what you have to achieve, so there is no ambiguity that you can sometimes have with permanent roles. Then you’re able to focus on specific deliveries and not get bogged down on peripheral issues which can emerge in the permanent role,” says Stephen Potter, interim CIO at HS2 Ltd, the company behind a £56bn high-speed railway in the UK.

The short-term effect can also help people within the business take more notice of what seems an external voice, giving them the opportunity to influence or execute their strategy more effectively.

In some cases, an interim may be hired specifically to lead a project that will have major impact. “They may want intensive troubleshooting in an organization, and once that’s done it may be back to business-as-usual, so an interim can add value there,” suggests Alison Davis, the CIO of the Crick Institute, a health research charity.

The type of role, then, dictates the skillset that organizations should seek from an interim CIO. The one common denominator: a proven ability to get up to speed quickly.


The handover process

Handovers are always difficult. But Davis believes handing over to an interim can actually be easier than handing over to someone permanent because the former is more familiar with the process and has experience hitting the ground running.

The real challenge comes when it’s time for the interim CIO to pass the role to a permanent CIO. “In my last job, I was followed by an interim. Then they recruited a permanent person, but I spent some time with the COO and the new CIO explaining the history and where I would have taken the organization if I had still been around there,” says Davis.

“That’s the problem with the interim – it detaches you from being able to hand over to the permanent person.” An interim simply can’t know the organization as well as his or her predecessor did. Unless interims make an active effort to maintain a relationship with the previous, permanent CIO, very likely they will not be able to give their permanent successor a complete picture of the organization and the responsibilities of the position.

What they can offer instead, says HS2’s Potter, is a fresh perspective on the organization. “They know I have no political axe to grind, so I can give a true and honest reflection of the role and what I think it needs,” he says.


Vetting the permanent replacement

Ultimately, that perspective is one of the key benefits interim CIOs can bring. That extends to helping management decide who the right person is for the permanent job. “I think the interim should be involved in some capacity in the recruitment of the permanent role, whether it’s formally or in a consultative capacity. It would be careless to waste the interim’s insight on both the needs of the role and in assessing the potential candidates,” says Shiraji.

Indeed, Potter helped to recruit his replacement, and Davis helped to recruit a full-time CTO for a pharmaceutical start-up she was working with last year.

For Potter, there will be a three week overlap when they will work together. “An overlapping period ensures smooth transition and continued execution of strategy with the least possible distractions and disturbances,” explains Shiva Kumar, the interim CTO at natural pet supplement provider Lintbells.


The joy of being interim

CIOs who specialize in the interim role believe jumping in for a brief stint isn’t just a skill that they have, but a task they enjoy.

“It’s mentally exciting and intellectually stimulating to drop into an organization and have to get up to speed very quickly,” says Potter.

The downside, he adds, is that the interim doesn’t get to see the fruits of their labor. Many digital projects take 18 months to two years to complete—so the rewards tend to accrue in the form of reputation rather than the gratitude of management.

Building a portfolio of diverse clients is something that spurs on the likes of Shiraji, Potter, and Kumar, giving them experience they can then apply in turn to new challenges. It also keeps their jobs interesting—and prevents them from reaching the stage when they’re merely keeping the lights on.


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Sooraj Shah

Sooraj Shah is a freelance technology journalist whose key focus is on how IT leaders are transforming their organisations using emerging technology. 

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