by Meridith Levinson

Do Consultants Have What It Takes to Be CIO?

Mar 21, 20083 mins
IT Leadership

Companies are increasingly hiring consultants into CIO positions. The Hartford Financial Services Group hired a 25-year veteran of Accenture as its CIO last October. Paper and packaging distributor Unisource Worldwide also hired an Accenture consultant as its CIO in August 2007. Other companies that hired consultants as their CIOs in the past year include:

  • Michael Baker
  • Mace
  • Home Décor Products
  • Flow International
This is a dramatic change from a decade ago. In 1998, when I first started working for CIO magazine, companies were reluctant to hire career consultants into the CIO role for a variety of reasons—the main one being that public companies didn’t think consultants possessed the political finesse to effect change inside organizations.

At the time, companies were racing to deploy ERP systems both to automate business processes related to finance, manufacturing and HR and to help with Y2K compliance. As we all know, those implementations were no picnic, fraught as they were with change management challenges. Since rallying support for ERP among key business executives and getting end-users acclimated to the new software and process changes were key to successful deployments, companies wanted to hire CIOs who had hands-on experience implementing ERP systems. Even though companies hired legions of consultants to help with ERP implementations, they believed there was a fundamental difference between deploying these systems and effecting change as a consultant and outsider vs. effecting change from the inside. They thought consultants had it easier because they didn’t have to worry about burning bridges and because they were contracted for a short period of time, not the long haul duration of the implementation. Consequently, employers didn’t think consultants had the hands-on, real-world, insider experience of building internal political alliances and rallying end-user support that was critical for success.

I wonder why companies have changed their attitude toward consultants. Some, such as The Hartford, Michael Baker and Mace, hired consultants who had been working for the company, so these consultants weren’t coming in off the street, so to speak. They had the opportunity to prove themselves on projects. I understand companies using consulting engagements to “test” job candidates. It makes sense to me, and presumably makes hiring a lot easier for them.

But still, if effecting change as an external consultant is truly different from effecting change as an internal CIO, why would companies be confident that these consultants they’re hiring can do the CIO job? I don’t think the answer is ‘because those consultants have proven themselves’ because I’m not convinced these consultants have proven themselves as CIO. (Of course, the companies that hired them might think otherwise.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to pass judgment on consultants, and in particular on the consultants who’ve been hired into the CIO positions I’ve mentioned above. I’m not saying I think they’re bad, incompetent or incapable of being CIO. I’m simply trying to point out a change in attitude that has affected competition for CIO jobs, and I’m trying to understand what prompted that change.

Why are so many more companies open to hiring consultants into the CIO role? Has the nature of IT projects changed such that the skills and experiences that were required for CIOs in 1998 are no longer in demand? Is it a need to pick a CIO from a broader pool of applicants? Do consultants, especially career consultants, have what it takes to be CIO? Let me know what you think.