Interim CIO jobs: The advantages - and disadvantages

Interim CIO roles mean different challenges to permanent CIO positions. Here are some of the benefits - and downsides - to taking a temporary CIO contract.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

IT professionals are often told to prepare for the rise of the gig economy and a future workplace of flexible and short-term contracts. While often this is seen as a development directed at less senior employees, CIOs are also seeing a change in their working terms.

Some experts believe there has been as much as a 25 per cent rise in demand for interim CIOs during the past five years. For CIOs who are looking for a change in career direction, what are the potential plus-points and challenges associated to the interim position?

1. Take the chance to become a well-rounded executive

After a range of permanent IT leadership positions, Omid Shiraji is currently interim CIO at Camden Council in London. It is a position he relishes.

"There's something interesting about the interim role," he says. "People take more notice of the external voice. Your ability to influence others appears to be greater when you're freelance. There's also something positive about taking your experience to other sectors - it makes you a more well-rounded individual."

Some might question whether an interim CIO boasts the degree of loyalty of a permanent IT leader who is committed to the business on a long-term basis. However, Shiraji says it is short-sighted to suggest interims lack the ambition of their permanent peers.

"The most successful interim CIOs think about sustainability," he says. "There's a negative reputation associated to the interim role and that's related to short-term delivery targets. Actually, the more successful interim IT leaders focus on what's right for the organisation both now and into the future."

2. Use your experiences to improve other leaders

Jonathan Mitchell, non-executive director at Harvey Nash and former CIO at Rolls Royce, says - whether permanent or not - most technology chief roles involve a limited lifespan. He points to research by Harvey Nash and KPMG which suggests that in more than half of cases (59 percent) the tenure of an CIO position is five years or less.

Most of Mitchell's work today involves advising next-generation CIOs about best practice techniques for IT leadership. Some of these clients are embarking on major transformation projects and benefit from the experiences of a battle-hardened IT leader. Interims, he says, fulfil a similar need.

"The interims I meet are often people who have done the CIO role, got bored and liked the opportunity of moving around, seeing different organisations and operations," he says. "Interims are often asked to help recruit a CIO while they're in the position. Offering support like this means you can have a much more varied role."

3. Grab the opportunity to be a true change agent

It is a sentiment that resonates with Liberty technology director Martin Draper, who initially joined the luxury retailer on an interim basis. He also held an interim role at Harrods before being appointed full-time.

Draper believes the temporary technology chief role gives IT leaders an opportunity to act as true change agents. "I think the interim market is very interesting," he says.

"It's very easy for a full-time CIO to not get the balance right because of demands relating to keeping the lights on and a range of operational concerns. IT leaders should be transformation officers as well - and interim CIOs, who often have a specific set of objectives to achieve, are often not encumbered with managing the operation"

Draper says this freedom and flexibility means CIOs should embrace interim opportunities. "You can come in and use your experience, without having to worry about sticking around long-term and the maintenance of day-to-day operations," he says. "And when the work is done, you can move to the next opportunity and drive a similar amount of change. I think that's quite a tempting proposition."

4. Embrace new ways of working and collaborating

Mark Ridley, group technology officer at venture builder Blenheim Chalcot Accelerate, says the greatest benefit for IT leaders in interim positions is accelerated learning. "By embedding ourselves in different cultures and industries we can rapidly expand the breadth, if not the depth, of our experience," he says.

However, Ridley recognises there are also potential downsides to the role of an interim. Some employers might typecast serial interims when considering candidates for permanent roles. Taking a non-permanent position also means CIOs can sometimes lack the opportunity to get their teeth stuck into long-term projects, for better and worse.

"Sometimes it can take years for the impact of strategic decisions to work through, and - as an interim - you might miss out due to this slow feedback loop," says Ridley.

Yet as the nature of work in the modern age continues to change, Ridley expects that there will be more call for specialists to take on shorter term roles, and perhaps for senior executives to work with several businesses simultaneously on long-term planning. "What I call 'the challenge economy' will hopefully bring more opportunity for all IT leaders to learn quickly and think strategically," he says.

5. Don't view the interim role as the easy option

The key point, says Lisa Heneghan, global head of KPMG's CIO advisory practice, is that CIOs have many choices. Interim IT leadership forms one of these career options but it must not be viewed as the easier route. The lack of permanence, suggests Heneghan, can mean temporary post-holders fail to properly engage with executive peers.

"The interim role is tough," she says. "I feel CIO roles need to be intrinsically linked to, and intertwined with, the business. As an IT leader, you need to feel a sense of ownership for that business. I think CIOs can do that best when they're a full-time part of the business, where they have a long-term commitment to growth and development."

Heneghan says an added layer of complexity comes when interims move between different industries. While the transition can be rewarding, she says it is difficult to translate experiences from local or central government to an industry like finance.

"I think the key discussion for CIOs is about how technology can enable the business," says Heneghan. "I can understand the benefits of flexibility and I've seen interims that have come in and done a great job."


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