Most of us thrive in relatively defined structures where we understand the parameters within which we can act, succeed or fail. As such, we are typically very uncomfortable in liminal states—when we are neither here nor there, neither in nor out, neither fish nor fowl. CIOs who are in acting or interim roles must exist in this gray area, often for protracted periods of time while performing Herculean feats of turnaround, firefighting and influence.
Whether you’re a number two with a shot at the top or a consultant brought in on an ad hoc basis, the odds of getting the full time job are typically not great for interim CIOs. It’s relatively easy for an external candidate to convince a hiring committee that he will do great things in the future. An internal candidate has to do great things in the here and now. And while an external candidate can paint a beautiful picture of future alignment and prosperity, an internal candidate has no choice but to expose the current and ugly truth about an IT organization.
So how do you shift from acting to in charge? To find out, I checked in with several CIOs who successfully made this transition. Follow their tips, and you may find yourself happily erasing the “interim” from your office door.
Don’t be a baby-sitter. In July 2006, ICG Commerce, a procurement outsourcing provider, hired Rick Bunker for a week-long consulting engagement on IT management strategy.
“I gave my report and figured I was done,” he says. About a month later, a new CEO joined the company and asked Bunker to present his findings once again. The CEO liked what he heard and asked Bunker to consult as an interim CIO for a three-month assignment. “Two months into my consulting engagement, when it was time to finish up or begin a new statement of work, they asked me to take the permanent role,” he says.
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Interim CIOs are often asked to babysit an organization and leave the major strategic moves to the permanent CIO. Bunker warns against allowing your role to be defined this passively.
“If your CEO tells you to keep things calm before the new person starts, you’re in a terrible position,” says Bunker. “Your peers will see you as ineffective—and they are the real decision-makers as to whether or not you’ll get the job.” When Bunker joined ICG, the company was transitioning from a product to a services strategy, and the IT organization was misaligned to the new business model. In his first two months on the job, Bunker restructured the organization, adopted an agile programming methodology and set up a new technical training program.
So how do you react when a CEO tells you to stay in the box? “If your boss tells you that you can’t reorganize or fire people, then develop strategies for transformation and present them as what you believe should be done,” he says. “Develop a strategy and sell it, even if you can’t execute.”
Put a premium on trust. “When you work as an interim CIO in a consulting capacity, people can be very forthcoming with you because they consider you outside the political fray,” says Bunker. “When you make the switch from interim to permanent, it can be a real shock to people who have spoken more openly with you than they would have if you were a full time employee.”
If you want your peers to support your permanent appointment, you need to make it clear when you’re acting CIO that they will be able to trust you should you wind up in the permanent role.
Pay attention to the step below peer-level. Consultant Jim Ward was named acting CIO of logistics company Pacer International in December 2006. He was asked to run IT as the company conducted an external CIO search. Five months later, the company’s CEO asked him to take the full-time job.
When Jim took the interim job, he was not planning to work full-time, but he liked the company and the challenges it faced, so he decided to accept. His advice: While it is true that the opinions of your C level peers are a critical factor in determining whether you are right for the position, you cannot ignore the next level down.
“I spent much less time with senior management than I did with the business getting things done,” he says of his interim period. “If you’re helping managers run their businesses, they will filter that message all the way up. If the managers are not happy with you, you will probably not get the job.”
Be prepared to work for a new CIO. When the CIO of Covance left the drug development services company in June 2005, John Repko, then VP of global applications at the company, was named his interim successor and given the permanent role the following January. Not only did Repko need to survive an external search, he was asked to participate in the selection of the permanent CIO. The situation was unique and challenging for Repko, but he defined an approach for himself and stuck with it.
“I came up with a way to evaluate candidates where I drew a line and said if the candidate is a full step above me, I’ll be big enough to be prepared to work for him or her,” he says. “But if I didn’t think I could learn something from this person, I would state my concern.”
Be sensitive to the reaction of your former peers. “You need to understand that not everyone will be happy for you,” says Repko.
Colleagues who feel that they should have been selected for the interim assignment may not be your top supporters. “You cannot alienate your former peers,” he says. “Be humble, ask their advice often and show them that you’re in learning mode.”
Be visible. Soon after he was put in the interim position, Repko built a 30-60-90-day plan for the IT organization and hit the road.
“I felt that it was critically important that the top leaders at Covance understood that I was in charge and was no longer the number two guy,” he says. “I did that by going on a world tour to meet with all of the major business leaders and building a solid 30-60-90-plan and reviewing it frequently with my CEO and my peers.”
Think short and long simultaneously. In November 2006, consultant Rick Gehringer was invited to negotiate an outsourcing agreement for the Brookings Institution. By January, the relationship turned into a six-month interim CIO contract while the organization conducted an external CIO search. Two months into the search, which began in May 2007, Rick formally interviewed for the role and received an offer a month later.
His advice? “Remember that you’re doing the job they hired you for with one hand and interviewing for the permanent job with the other,” he says. “You need to deliver a balance of short term successes, like resolving chronic infrastructure problems, with long term strategic vision.”
In other words, act like a CIO and you may just win the job.
Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm in Boston. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.