Are all CIOs Interim CIOs?

Demand has increased for interim CIOs, tasked with filling the IT top spot for between six months and a couple of years. But in a jobs market where frequent shuffling is the norm, with the average ‘life span’ of a CIO shrinking, does the role of an interim CIO differ that greatly a permanent CIO?

Stats from the Harvey Nash CIO 2018 survey confirmed that the ‘life span’ of a CIO had not increased since 2015, cementing these professionals as some of the flightiest. In 2018, around 14% surveyed had been in their role for less than a year, with 60% had been in their role for five years or less. And this won’t be changing any time soon: 21% reportedly aim to move on after less than one year, and only 27% plan to be at the same organisation in over five years.

However, with 78% of CIOs still rating their job satisfaction highly, lack of enjoyment may not explain the frequent moves.

Founder of London-based business management consultancy Sullivan & Stanley, Pat Lynes notes the increasing demand for interim CIOs, putting it down to CIOs becoming frustrated with ‘corporate politics’ and instead seeking to sample the gig economy.

“People are realising they’ve got more choice,” he told CIO UK. “They’re seeing that their peers have made the switch and are now running a portfolio with private equity clients, with corporate clients, with coaching clients, with NED trusteeships and they’re thinking ‘I want to do that’.”

From a company’s perspective, interim CIOs may be brought on for a number of reasons: to cover for absences, implement a specific initiative, or lead a transformation project among them. But while permanent CIOs are also tasked with the latter two goals, the main factor that differs is the time scale they are expected to carry it out in. While permanent CIOs are accorded looser, more malleable time limits, interim CIOs might feel pressurised to direct meaningful change at the organisation within strict deadlines.

But how does the interim CIO role differ from that of a permanent position? In January 2017, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) appointed Ian Golding as its interim CIO, and tasked him with creating a vision of how technology and data can make a more efficient rescue service and prevent drowning.

“An interim CIO can really help where an organisation is evolving and the traditional IT function is in need of evolution,” Golding, now interim CIO for the Natural History Museum, “An interim can come in and redefine and remodel how the technology of the organisation could be in readiness for a new CIO to take over.”

What does this imply for CIOs looking to head into the interim game?

“People looking to go into the interim market have to have a bit more of an appetite for risk,” said Lynes. “They have to be able to sell themselves more, and they have to be able to brand themselves in a crowded market and then commit to building and sustaining a thriving network that’s going to work for them.”

However, an interim CIO position creates slightly different demands on the employee. Interim CIOs are required to land on their feet, soaking up vast quantities of ‘hard’ knowledge about the company’s organisational structure and technological infrastructure, as well as ‘soft’ knowledge such as managerial politics and working practices.

“In an interim role, you’re forced to understand an organisation quite quickly,” Golding explained. “But that same way of working could and arguably should apply to a permanent CIO role, due to the rapidly evolving world of technology we live in.” Due to the intensive energy that’s required, CIOs should reconsider taking on an interim role if they are susceptible to burnout.

They must also not be averse to going out on a limb. “You’re often put on the spot to make decisions and that’s not for everyone,” said Golding. “It can be very exciting, but it can make some people nervous. Talk to some people that have done it and see if that mixture will work for you.”

Although interim CIOs are provided with shorter time frames, those who focus solely on the short term are likely to be gambling with their professional credibility. “They focus on what is right for the organisation both immediately and in the long-term, and act with the accountability of a permanent leader,” says Omid Shiraji, consulting CIO at Camden Council.

By its nature, the CIO role lends itself to ‘interim’ iterations: “They arrive in their new role with a mandate to implement change in the IT function and the organisation’s system,” said former CIO UK columnist, Ian Cox.

He continued: “If all goes to plan around two years later the majority of the changes will have been implemented and the organisation will have an improved IT capability. Assuming they have successfully implemented their vision and strategy for IT, the CIO’s credibility and reputation will be enhanced and they should be well positioned to use their achievements to go on to bigger and better things.”

This could explain most CIOs’ expectations for rapid job hopping, as they move up the food chain to more lucrative and experienced positions. But of course, this is dependent on CIOs delivering the expected digital transformations within the specified timeframe.


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