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The fix-it executive

The fix-it executive

Some CIOs want to build, others make IT work. What type of CIO are you?

One year? A decade? How long have you been in your current role? The answer could be more important than you think when you next decide to

change jobs. Increasingly, executives are being judged on the length

of their tenures.

Behind the scenes, on a recruitment dossier or located deep in a human

resources file, chief information officers are often lumped into two

professional categories: builders or maintainers.

The builders are those who thirst for a "greenfield" challenge, and

thrive in the environment of getting an information technology project

over the line under strict deadlines before riding off into the

sunset. The maintainers do just that - maintain systems, but spend as

much effort doing so as their building brethren do in creating.

The reason for the distinction is the noticeable contraction of the

employment period of some Australian CIOs. This year has seen some

high-profile technology executives leave their posts in less than 12

months, which is short even for the IT industry. But is this a trend?

What type of chief information officer are you?

Westpac Banking Corporation technology executive Diane Sias was knee-deep in the

organisation's core banking and vendor contract review, which is

critical to the $18.6 billion St George merger, when she left in July

this year after only 10 months. AndPaul Summergreene lasted only

seven months asQueensland Health CIO before being ousted.

Interim executives are filling an increasing number of positions for

significant periods. Chief information officers interviewed for this

article have a mixed reaction when asked about what they perceive to

be an appropriate tenure. However, if you draw a consensus answer, it

appears to about three years.

Interim options

The University of Sydney appointedRobert Mackinnon as its CIO for

one year in 2005 while it looked for a permanent replacement. He had

also turned an initial three-month contract role with NSW's State Rail

into a three-year stint in 2003.

He says that however short the proposed tenure, a CIO must approach

the job as if he or she is there for the long haul.

"If you come in as interim, you will be treated as one," Mackinnon

says. "You have to treat it as though you are the permanent

incumbent."

There's no textbook definition of an appropriate length of time needed

to make an impact. "It's too cute to say you need three to four years

to do something, as a lot of change or implementations are driven by

so many competing forces," he says. "But then again, in most

organisations, if you don't appear to be learning in one year, you

won't see a second."

The first 100 days are telling for both the CIO and the organisation,

but Mackinnon rejects the notion that builders are limited to a

one-year lifespan, with maintainers left to pick up after them.

He believes the two can be easily differentiated by skill sets. "I am

a builder and you really need a different skill set to be a

maintainer," he says. "You have to like a challenge and variety as a

builder whereas a maintainer likes the continual improvement game and

this needs a different skill set and psychological make-up."

Builders will typically gravitate to situations where they can create

something, such as a standardised IT platform, or to a scenario in

which they are under the pump in a growing business.

Maintainers, on the other hand, may live to tune a particular

application suite or business and stick with it for the long term - if

not for a lifetime, then certainly a significant number of years. But

how long either a builder or a maintainer spends in any one role is

not a cast-iron reflection of their abilities. Sometimes a short

tenure can be viewed as a failure, but that isn't always the case.

Build or maintain

Super Cheap Auto Group CIO Wayne McMahon says some CIOs can make an

impact in three to six months, especially if they are hired to fix an

immediate problem. Most, regardless of whether they categorise

themselves as a builder or maintainer, think of their roles in terms

of a three- to five-year stretch.

McMahon believes that the number of CIOs falling into the builder

class will often be driven by the search for a fresh challenge and may

get itchy feet once an IT system is at its peak efficiency or a

specific project is completed. This is where a maintainer may be

hired. "I'm a builder, I like coming in, making an impact quickly and

facing the challenge of delivering change quickly before handing it

off to a maintainer whose employment timeline is probably more between

three to 10 years," he says.

McMahon, who has been in his role for two-and-a-half years, says it is

easy to make a huge initial impact in a greenfield environment in less

than a year during the so-called "building" phase. What is more

difficult is making an impact in a maintenance-centric IT leadership

role in less than four years because, as he puts it, some large-scale

organisations turn slowly and to turn it takes a lot of planning.

"With a four-year role you would use the first year to feel your way

around the business, the second to get projects done, the third to

cement the strategy and then move on in the fourth."

As for what looks good on a resume, he says it is about companies and

circumstances, not length of tenure in the position.

For those looking to expand their skills or even spread their wings,

some recruitment consultants may look unfavourably on anything less

than a three-year stay. Apart from specific contract, interim or

acting roles lasting a year, any less time spent in the one position

as a senior technology executive can be seen as an organisational lack

of direction or professionalism.

Hamilton James Bruce senior consultant Edward Wellington, a

specialist in senior executive recruitment, says the majority of CIOs

and IT directors he talks to believe if someone is in a role for less

than three years, then possibly the brief stay hints that something

has gone off the rails. If an organisation is large enough to justify

a CIO in the first place, then it is rare they should have to deliver

against a one-year business plan.

Interim roles follow another set of rules. Wellington says the

difference between hiring an interim executive as a stopgap solution

and promoting a deputy or staffer to acting CIO is that an incoming

executive is often expected to effect change in the existing culture.

If change is not required then the organisation is looking to hire

someone who can continue the previous person's good work.

Grace period

"CIOs have a time frame to achieve goals before stakeholders ask

questions. In the majority of large organisations, in the first six

months, they have the right to make significant changes to a

management team, to identify strengths and put the right people in

place," Wellington says.

But hiring a technical dream team depends on many factors and on

technology project cycles as well as the scope of the organisation. At

the executive level, a new hire can lead to serious disruption. What

if an incoming executive denies your hard work or has a different

vision - can you pick up and continue elsewhere?

What if that shake-up, as in the case of Westpac's Sias, leads you to

head off, within a year of starting, what is, without doubt, a

long-term project? An easy solution, for the business at least, is to

hire an interim executive.

RailCorp CIO Vicki Coleman says the interim is specifically hired to

tie up loose ends to give the permanent person a clean slate when they

come on board.

Coleman says that the difference between hiring an interim and

stepping up an insider to the role is that the acting officer can

rarely make their mark through IT project direction or management

skills.

She says the general understanding behind hiring or promoting a

staffer to the position is that the person would soon become a

permanent replacement.

"The acting CIO is usually an internal hire and an interim normally

comes in from an external market with the understanding they will not

be signed on a permanent contract," Coleman says.

"There are a number of interim managers around who spend their lives

doing interim work from a three-month strategic project to 18 months,

and at that level the benefits for an interim employee are different

from those of a permanent employee."

Coleman says she doesn't see herself as a builder or maintainer but

rather a transformer. She says the roles she typically seeks involve a

fair degree of change, and other people (like maintainers) are more

interested in the "business as usual" side of things.

Talent2's CIO recruitment specialist,Paul Rush, says often the

interim executive is employed to make counter-culture changes to the

business.

Rush says the uptake of interim CIOs in Australia is small and he

believes Australia may not be a big enough market to warrant demand

for career interim executives.

This was the case withAussie Home Loans hiringJames O'Donnell,

their third CIO in three years, when Christopher Hatzidis left in

March 2007 after only five months in the role.

O'Donnell says he knew from the start he may or may not be a candidate

for the full-time position. "The immediate requirement was to hire an

interim while Aussie worked out their true requirements as they had

real turnover issues in the IT department and needed to address that,"

he says.

O'Donnell held the interim position for three months (beginning April

2007) before becoming permanent. He says the way the position was sold

to him was that the company needed someone immediately and he had no

expectations he would be given the job permanently.

"There is a subtle difference between using a consultant as a

contractor versus an interim hire," he says. "I came in expecting I

had all the presence of the CIO and this was my job; and a consultant

always has something to go back to. I wasn't looking behind me the

whole three months ... but I knew I had a certain time priority."

Dream roles

Career CIOs - those who have been in the one position with the same

company for more than a decade and have been dubbed maintainers -

believe the role has evolved over the past few years, that it provides

more than enough stimulation for a long-term career.

One executive, who works in the fast-moving consumer goods space, says

if today's CIO had a stagnant position then he would see a trend

towards even shorter stays, but that is just not the case. For a

long-term maintainer, each year is uniquely different to the last, and

it's exciting coming to work at the same place each day to use the

accumulated business knowledge gained.

"Being either a builder or a maintainer is a generalisation - you can

be a builder over a long period of time and when you look back at your

time spent in the one company, you think 'wow, look at all the things

I have managed to achieve'.

"There are going to be people that only suit certain roles, and taking

an interim position is not going to be a reputation enhancer. Being a

CIO means being a leader and unless you have that understanding, you

are just serving a board and keeping a chair warm."

Tech-savvy gun for hire

Regardless of whether you see yourself as a builder or a maintainer,

it is critical to make your mark in the first 100 days of a new

position.

  • Prepare for a three- to four-year stay as CIO and don't be surprised
if you are asked to reapply for your job or look elsewhere after your

time is up.

  • The local market for interim executives is very small, so
consider heading to Britain if short stays appeal.
  • If you are currently acting as the chief information officer, check
if there is an immediate succession plan for you to get into the

permanent chair.

  • If you are considering leaving, look to hire an interim or contract
manager to tie up any loose IT-project ends between appointments.

Fairfax Business Media

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