Less politics, more action: How CIOs can benefit from taking an interim role

Taking charge for a short period of time doesn't mean you can't have a big impact on an organisation.

Signing a contract for an interim position could benefit your career later on. Image: iStock
Full-time positions allow CIOs to get their teeth sunk into an organisation and to lead an IT-enabled business transformation. But not every CIO, of course, takes a permanent role. Why should technology chiefs consider interim positions and what benefits can they gain from a temporary role?

1. Dive into challenges that are inaccessible to full-time CIOs

Chris Chandler, head of the CIO practice at recruitment specialist La Fosse Associates, is a big advocate for the interim CIO role. He says that, in some instances, taking a temporary position can allow a CIO to design and deliver what they deem to be the optimal IT structure for the business.

"Such interims are often free from the politics that can restrain their full-time counterparts," says Chandler. "Operating without such constraints can be wholly liberating for CIOs and often leads to more radical IT transformations."

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He does, however, issue a word of warning, suggesting that temporary positions can come with their own limitations. "In some instances, interim CIO roles are shackled with the remit of simply maintaining business as usual while the organisation seeks a full-time alternative," says Chandler.

"Unlike the transformational interim CIO, the temporary business as usual IT leader is instructed to conform to the status-quo of the organisation. The interim CIO in these circumstances consequentially has limited, or no, freedom to follow his or her natural change instincts."

Yet the good news for most CIOs is that the benefits of taking an interim role are widespread, says Chandler. He says experience from the recruitment industry suggests that, generally speaking, organisations are increasingly industry-agnostic when it comes to appointing interim CIOs.

"Therefore, aside from the obvious remuneration benefits that accompany interim positions, these appointments can offer CIOs the opportunity to dive into new sectors and challenges that would not be accessible to their permanent counterparts," says Chandler, who recognises that the route from temporary to full-time IT leader is a well-worn path.

"Furthermore, if handled in a sensitive manner, an interim CIO might find themselves extended the opportunity to remain with the company in a full-time capacity. Taking an interim position can, therefore, be viewed as a great way to sample an environment before launching into a full-time position."

2. Treat the interim position as a valuable learning experience

One example of the movement from temporary to permanent IT chief is First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins, who joined the power specialist in an interim position in 2009. He came from the supply-side of the industry and had spent time as an IT leader at big technology firms, including SeeBeyond and Sun Microsystems.

Wilkins suggests interim placements are a great way to experience a new type of business. "It can be scary but it can provide some really valuable experiences," he says. "What I learnt was obviously great, as I ended up staying at the company on a full-time basis."

The requirements of Wilkins' interim placement were very different to the role he fulfils at First Utility today. The startup had already built its first generation platform. The system was being used to serve customers but did not provide the flexibility to scale upwards as the business grew. Wilkins' interim role was to help fix the problem and find a way forwards.

"The company was on the verge of signing a contract with a big technology supplier and they wanted someone to come in and give them a second opinion," he says. "I came in, had a look and told the senior team that they didn't need to go out and spend a lot of money. I believed there was a cheaper, faster way of fixing things."

In total, Wilkins spent six months in the interim position. He advised First Utility to repair the platform it had already created. He also suggested the company should continue to invest in its existing open source strategy, rather than relying on high-cost, commercial software.

"My job was to provide the business with a plan," says Wilkins. "The strategy demonstrated that the company already had a platform it could build on and it didn't need to throw everything away and start again with a commercial vendor. I created an incremental plan and I was then asked to stay and implement that strategy."

3. Make a difference and avoid the strain of corporate politics

Like his counterparts, Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says becoming an interim CIO can provide huge benefits when it comes to moving up the executive career ladder.

"It's an option I'd highly recommend," he says. "It represents a golden opportunity in so many ways. It may feel a little precarious at times but, as we all know, there's never any real gain without some risk."

Behenna believes the interim role provides benefits in a range of key areas. First, being temporary provides an escape route from, as he refers to it, the swamp of organisational politics. "You will be surprised what you can learn and fix when you have a perspective from outside the organisation, whilst also performing a key role within it," says Behenna.

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He says interims have the opportunity to make a big difference, without being seen as a threat to entrenched territories and fiefdoms. Another opportunity comes via the potential to forge alliances across the organisation, and to deliver results directly through brokering and partnership.

"Interim CIOs can become a change catalyst by delivering quick and highly visible results that map directly to their contract objectives," says Behenna. Unlike some permanent positions, interims are often given short-term targets and are presented with the entirely realistic prospect of leaving an important legacy behind.

"Taking on that challenge provides fantastic material for you CV that amplifies and enumerates your value and worth," he says, before suggesting that temporary positions also provide an opportunity for IT leaders to broaden their skills base.

"An interim role provides an open door to coach and mentor both IT staff and the organisation as a whole," says Behenna. "You have been chosen as an interim because of your skill set. Take the opportunity and demonstrate, share and exemplify your expertise."

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