by Meridith Levinson

More on Kaiser’s CIO Choice and on Interim CIOs in general

Mar 02, 20076 mins

After writing about Kaiser Permanente’s appointment of a new CIO to replace interim CIO Bruce Turkstra earlier this week (who replaced Cliff Dodd in November 2006), I began to wonder what it takes for an interim CIO to get the nod for the official CIO post. (I also decided to write about this topic for my On the Move Trendline in the April 1, 2007 issue of CIO, so stay tuned for more.)

At first, I was surprised that Turkstra was passed up. After all, he had been working on the healthcare giant’s electronic medical records initiative for a few years. He knew the organization, and the organization knew him. Then it dawned on me that his tenure with the company may have been precisely why he wasn’t selected: In the aftermath of the controversial Justen Deal e-mail that indicted Kaiser’s management, IT initiatives and spending, the Oakland, Calif.-based company may have wanted to distance itself from the old IT management, which included Turkstra.

The fact that Philip Fasano, the candidate Kaiser chose to replace Turkstra, does not have a healthcare background seemed like further evidence to support my theory: Kaiser didn’t choose Turkstra because it wanted to bring in new blood, and Fasano truly is an outsider. He previously worked almost exclusively for financial services companies.

I contacted Kaiser Permanente’s PR department and asked why the company opted for someone other than the individual serving in the interim spot. A spokesperson for Kaiser sent the following explanation to me via e-mail:

“The selection of the new CIO was in no way a negative reflection on the interim appointee. In fact, the interim CIO, did a wonderful job when he was the vice president and director of the IT and business aspects of putting KP HealthConnect, our electronic medical record system, in place very successfully. This was a matter of picking among group of excellent candidates.

“The person selected brought an array of experiences, business acumen, strategic approach and deep technical skills that were judged to best serve the organization’s technological agenda.”  

I realize I don’t even know if Turkstra even wanted to be CIO, but it turns out that the odds might have been stacked against him from the get-go. According to Sam Gordon, director of the CIO practice for executive search firm Harvey Nash, internal candidates appointed to interim positions don’t have a good chance of being named official CIO. I wouldn’t have thought that, but Gordon’s reasoning made sense to me.

Gordon says that because most companies are so bad at succession planning, they have no choice but to look externally for a new CIO, even if they appoint an internal employee to the position on an interim basis to help with the transition. “Unless someone has been earmarked as a natural successor and has been groomed for that role, many companies will go externally,” he says. “If you’re an HR director and you put someone who could be a good successor [to the CIO] in the role as interim, even if you have a strong sense that that individual is capable of stepping up to the CIO role, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.  Nine times out of 10 if not more, HR directors will still commission an executive search to do their due diligence in the marketplace.”

It appears the scenario Gordon described to me may have been precisely the case at Kaiser. The CEO George Halvorson wrote in a memo announcing Dodd’s resignation that he was commencing a search for a new CIO at the same time that he had tapped Turkstra to serve as interim CIO.

The other reason why external candidates have an advantage over internal ones, according to Gordon, is because hiring managers don’t have any preconceived ideas about the external candidates. External candidates don’t carry the baggage internal candidates do, he says. 

Gordon also agreed with me that Kaiser may have selected an outsider to distance itself from the past, though he declined to talk specifically about Kaiser. “I can’t comment specifically on that company because I don’t know the details, but in many cases if the CIO has left under a cloud, the company may want to bring in fresh blood and new ideas,” he says.

Gordon offered some salient advice to IT managers appointed interim or acting CIO.  First, he says, think seriously about whether or not you want to be considered for the CIO job on a permanent basis—and if you’re ready to assume such a position—before you “throw your hat into the ring.”  Making the leap before you’re ready will damage your equity inside your company he says because you will have effectively tried out for something and failed, he says. What’s more, when you finally do have the experience to become  CIO, in say, two years time, it will be harder for you to make that move again internally having failed the first time.

Gordon also cautions interim CIOs against seeing that assignment as being the perfect opportunity to prove their worth in the CIO post. “As an interim CIO, you’re treated differently from a permanent person. People won’t always invest the same amount of time in you or give you the same level of accountability to drive change because they see you as a temporary person,” he warns.

If you have thrown your hat into the ring and want to find out if you’re a serious contender for the CIO post, Gordon says to look for the following signs: You’re involved in strategic business discussions; you’ve been given a seat at the table with the rest of top management; the company gives you a reasonable amount of time to prove yourself before commissioning an external search; the CEO or CFO has taken you aside to tell you that you’re doing a good job; and the company has a record of promoting internal candidates. The more of those signs you see, the more serious consideration you’re being given.

But of course, be careful of getting strung along. “Some organizations, if they’ve lost a CIO and need a period of stability they might give the interim person the impression that they have strong chance to make sure that person stays focused,” says Gordon. 

If you’re not involved in strategic business discussions or if your company decides to table major IT projects or investments, then you know your chances are not good, and you might want to start looking for a new job elsewhere.