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Six Key Traits to Look for in an Interim CIO

by | Mar 24, 2016

Has your current CIO put in a resignation notice, or are you considering whether it is time for a leadership change in IT? There may be significant value in filling the gap with an interim CIO.

Why consider an interim CIO? An interim CIO can ensure continuity of leadership, maintain or improve the momentum of current initiatives, and provide an impartial assessment of your IT organization. An interim CIO can also provide assistance with transitioning out the current CIO, defining the position description and searching for a suitable replacement. Replacing the CIO takes time, experience and energy, and rushing to fill the position could lead to a costly hiring mistake.

Clearly define the role of the replacement CIO. Before you begin the search, make sure you understand the role of a CIO. The CIO is responsible for your company’s information assets. A seasoned CIO will think strategically, apply governance and controls, have a keen interest in process, planning, execution, security and details, and think and communicate in business terms. The CIO may be entrepreneurial in nature and demonstrate ways to monetise the information assets. If you and/or the executive team view the role as a tactical manager of systems and/or technical infrastructure, which are subsets of the CIO role, and you believe that the role doesn’t need to participate in the company’s strategic planning, you should be honest and educate the executive team on what the role is and what value it provides, or redefine the role description in more realistic terms so that you attract the right candidates. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a long search process, potential conflict with the new CIO, and disappointment in his or her performance; you may be positioning the CIO to fail.

Will you need an executive search firm? An interim CIO is not a replacement for an executive search firm. While the search firm will focus on the cultural fit, the interim CIO can provide guidance in defining IT leadership skills and technical capability needs and, relatively speaking, assist in reviewing the candidates in order for you to find the best fit for your organization.

Here we discuss six key traits to look for in a CIO that can be applied to the interim CIO as well:

  1. A strategic outlook. Let’s face it. Your IT organization must be agile in order to meet changing business needs. Once you implement a solution, there’s a good chance that something better is already being offered in the market; therefore, proper system and vendor selection is critical. A CIO has a solid understanding of system uses, limitations, scalability, security and integration, and how well they automate business processes, to name a few things. Most importantly, the CIO understands how the solution fits into the enterprise roadmap that aligns with the business strategy. The CIO will work with the appropriate business benefactors to select solutions and vendors that will partner with the company in support of its current functional and future needs. The CIO also knows how to attract and retain the talent to implement, maintain and support or strategically outsource to provide the service level necessary to support his business counterparts. A well-balanced CIO thinks strategically and acts pragmatically – he or she is not drawn to the next shiny object, nor speaks in platitudes, but is highly capable of execution and the understanding of detail.
  2. A high degree of EQ. A CIO needs to have demonstrated traits of emotional intelligence, including cultural sensitivity, tolerance, empathy, compassion, listening skills and understanding of two-way communication. A person who cannot communicate well will not lead the IT department effectively or interact successfully with managers of other business functions. Your CIO also understands how to make the most out of human assets.
  3. An understanding of how to align IT with the business strategy. While your CIO should be part of the executive team and an active participant in the development of executive strategy, the CIO also needs to align IT investment with core objectives using proper governance working with the CFO and the board during the planning and budgeting stages. Large IT expenditures that are not governed properly could become a drain on your firm’s financial resources or, worse, little to no IT investment could lead to security breaches, system failure, poor customer satisfaction and loss of talent, among many other events that would potentially undermine the company’s ability to meet its objectives. Hire a CIO with a well-rounded background in business and a proven knowledge of building an IT Enterprise Architecture that aligns with core operating objectives, principles and the business model.
  4. The capability to properly manage your portfolio of applications. Resource availability or consumption is one of the core challenges for a CIO. An experienced CIO will maintain an inventory of applications and infrastructure (application portfolio management or PPM) along with the resources assigned to each. This allows the organization to minimize, if not eliminate, multiple applications and infrastructure that serve the same function, know when to sunset and refresh, know how often to upgrade and when a change in platform is beneficial (such as moving to the cloud), and know how to maximize return on investment (ROI) and lower total cost of ownership (TCO). The CIO will monitor the stability and quality, with resource consumption, to determine performance and then report it with transparency to the business. The CIO, in turn, will use the information in the strategic planning process. Make sure your CIO understands what PPM is and how to properly use it.
  5. A history of managing change. Major shifts in systems are generally the result of large-scale company-wide change initiatives that can place a significant demand to adapt on affected employees at all levels within the company. They can resist adopting new systems, processes, leadership and organizational structure changes. A good CIO is an agent of change. He or she works with the CEO and executive team in leading employees through the transition. An experienced CIO knows that there is generally an initial dip in productivity after go-live and can differentiate between it and system functionality. Your CIO must have experience with organizational change management to be able to plan and implement new systems in support of the change initiatives. Large-scale change is the responsibility of the CEO and his or her staff. Be extremely cautious of the CIO who “raises his hand” to own organizational change management, which can inadvertently absolve the executive team of responsibility.
  6. A sense of integrity. You want a CIO who will do the right thing even in the face of controversy, not one who simply “goes along to get along.” Yes, you want a team player, too. Depending on your situation and culture, you may need a CIO who will challenge the status quo when it comes to driving the organization forward. Keep in mind that the non-IT executives can be the most challenging individuals during significant transformational initiatives because they may be affected the most. Therefore, select a CIO who can withstand the pressure while understanding that the CEO will need to provide cover. Select a CIO who is considering what is in the best interest of the company, not one who is looking for a short-term assignment to position himself or herself for the next career opportunity.

“The ability to translate the technical capabilities of IT to a business problem [and] the skills of interpersonal relationships, the ability to communicate and enlist people and get buy in and support” are two of the key areas that companies are looking for in a senior role, according to Peter Acheson, CEO at Peoplebank.1

Don’t put someone with limited experience or a lack of soft skills in charge of your organization’s IT organization. Choose someone who uses a strategic approach to building the organization’s IT capacity in preparation for future growth. We can help you temporarily fill this important role in your company.

Are you thinking about how to go about the process of hiring a CIO? Consider what Tom Berray, a managing partner at Cabot Consultants, an executive search firm based in Virginia, suggests in a blog article from Inc.

For details on acquiring an interim CIO, please contact us today.

1. Article from CIO magazine, “What companies look for when recruiting CIOs”.