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CIO for hire

A number of CIOs are intrigued by the possibility of an 'interim CIO' role, and the challenge of parachuting and setting things right. But you may want to do a bit more self assessment before taking the plunge.

CIOs are calling me. A lot. The country's economic instability has them nervous and thinking about their next job. Most are set on another CIO role and some are ready to move into "the business."

But a significant number are intrigued by the possibility of an "interim CIO" or"CIO for hire" role. They would like to join a firm whose clients are global corporations with messed-up IT organisations in urgent need of a temporary seasoned leader. They would enjoy, they tell me, the diversity of client company engagements and the challenge of parachuting in and setting things right.

Who wouldn't want an endless array of exciting new opportunities and a chance to play the hero? Of course, it's worth remembering that an interim role comes with its own special challenges. To paint a complete picture of what such a job encompasses, I spoke with three former CIOs who joined firms that offer interim CIO services as a part of their overall IT and management consulting umbrella. They offer some guidelines for the whys and hows of making the move.

1. Why Do It?

Change is your steady state. Lisa Metcalfe experienced an epiphany of sorts as she reflected on her career as CTO at Avista Advantage, CIO at Washington Gas and VP of IS at National Wildlife Federation. "What I enjoyed most about each role took place during the first six to 12 months on the job," she says. Once she had worked through that initial period of change, the work became less interesting. "I wanted to position myself so that the most challenging part of the job would be a regular part of my career."

After testing the waters by consulting on her own for a few months, she joined Tatum LLC, a large consulting firm that, among other things, provides interim CIO services to companies in immediate need of an IT leader. At first, Metcalfe worked directly on IT engagements, but she then moved into the role of regional practice leader, responsible for business development and the overall health of the practice.

You love the work, not the politics. "As a new internal executive, you have to spend a lot of up-front time on relationship building because you are there for the long term," says Metcalfe. "The interim role is freeing because you can focus directly on the work right away."

Metcalfe acknowledges that as an interim CIO, you need to build relationships as well. But you're not there for the long haul. And, in a consulting engagement, "you have to make project work your top priority; if there is a list of projects, you have to start working through it pretty quickly."

2. What to Ask Yourself Before You Dive In

Can I handle a shorter time line for success?Steve Faas's experience includes 18 years in IT leadership roles at GE and then four years as CIO at ITT, a $7 billion industrial manufacturing company. In 2007, he joined AlixPartners, a global restructuring, consulting and financial advisory firm that includes IT leadership engagements as one of its key service offerings.

"I spent 25 years in the corporate environment, where we tended to think in terms of years, not weeks or days," he says. "At AlixPartners, we may be helping our client develop a three-year plan, but we are measured on 30 days of delivery." The focus from the long term to the short run can be jarring for executives unused to it. Be sure you are comfortable with the shift before you sign on.

Can I be a rainmaker? "When you're an internal CIO, you are constantly selling ideas, projects, a vision or the need for a budget change," says Faas. "But in this role, you are selling to develop more business." In addition to providing exemplary service on client engagements, as a consultant you will be asked to develop new business over time without the support of a dedicated sales team.

Faas has found that inviting his colleagues with more sales experience to new client meetings is a great way to secure the engagement and develop his own business development skills. His advice: "Choose a firm that has a mix of people with consulting and operating backgrounds. You can draw on each other's experience to present the best team to the client."

Can I handle the travel? Dennis Conley, formerly CIO of Computer Data Systems, joined Transition Partners, an IT consulting firm to large global companies in 1998, and is now managing partner. "I knew the opportunity looked right for me and that the only impediment was 85 percent travel," he says. "But we decided to align it with our family life, like planning to spend the summer in Marino del Ray, since that's where I would be working. And my kids love the miles I get for their own travel!"

The CIOs I spoke to could not overstate the amount of travel associated with this work. As Faas put it, "When you're not on the road it means you haven't won the business."

3. What Qualities Are Consulting Firms Looking For?

Knowledge of technology. As managing partner, Conley is responsible for recruiting new members to the firm. While a business mind-set and relationship-building skills are critical, he also requires a working knowledge of new technology. "Can you talk about Web 2.0? Can you talk about virtualization?" he asks. "I'm not looking for people who are pure technologists but if you are talking to me about mainframes, that's a red flag. I don't want my customers telling me I have a dinosaur working for the firm."

Big company name. While Conley has hired many successful former CIOs from companies that are not large or well known, bigger is usually better. "If you're coming to us from Ford or Merck, that would be a real plus," he says. "While the big-name background is not essential for success in the firm, it does help us to attract new business."

Comfort with an advisory role. Jay Marshall is a managing director of AlixPartners and colead of the Information Technology Transformation Services practice. He, like Conley, bears responsibility for hiring new additions to the firm.

"We do like to see people who have had the CIO title in the past," he says, "but we'd also like to see some consulting experience, where they've shown their ability to be in an advisory role. Some CIOs want to say, 'Get out of the way and let me do it,' when they have to work hand in hand with the client."

Depth and breadth. "The ideal profile is someone who has come from a company larger than $250 million, has had both business and financial responsibility, and can go both deep and broad with technology," says Marshall. "It is great to have an SAP expert, but it is better to have someone who has seen multiple ERP environments. They need to be plug-and-play compatible."

Some CIOs transition beautifully into interim CIO work and some flounder and long to return "home." If you have any reservations about the travel, the selling and the advisory role, you may want to do a bit more self assessment before taking the plunge.

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the ZRG, an executive recruiting firm in Boston. Reach her at mheller@zrgroup.com.

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