The Grill: Laura Pettit Rusick

This CIO-for-hire gets inside dozens of IT groups, and sees a lot in common.

As president of OPT Solutions, a provider of IT management services, Laura Pettit Rusick has spent the past seven years working as an interim "retained" CIO, leading IT departments at multiple small and midsize companies, mostly on a part-time basis. The experience has given her new insight into the technology challenges and opportunities that exist in a wide swath of U.S. businesses. Rusick, a member of the Society for Information Management who had worked in full-time IT management positions in larger organizations before becoming an outsourced CIO, says her current work has shaped her perspective on what it takes to be an effective executive.

What are the greatest challenges you face as a retained CIO? One is certainly balancing time. We're typically not on-site eight hours a day. We're flexing our time throughout the week. With multiple clients, often the peaks of work will balance themselves out, which is nice. But there are times when scheduling can get pretty interesting. I find if there's a crisis, clients will understand. The other piece is not having as much face time.

Does being an interim or outsourced CIO give you some advantages over a full-time exec? From a CEO's perspective, it really does give advantages. It would be cost-prohibitive for a lot of midsize companies to hire a full-time experienced CIO. And you have the experiences of working with other clients at the same time, so, for example, you could have a software selection going on in one organization and two months later have the same thing somewhere else. That cross-pollination is very helpful to the client. And bringing in best practices regardless of industry is important as well. The other piece of it I've found is that I have a much better network than I ever had as a full-time CIO. So I'm able to bring people to the table. I've had CEOs ask for certain kinds of people because they know I have those resources.

How do you quickly establish trust and expertise? I find that being frank while being empathetic is a big part of the equation. People want you to be honest but because they've been living with a bad situation for a while they also don't want to be criticized for it. It's about how we move forward. The other piece is a pure business piece. As soon as you can show or discuss early benefits by identifying new benefits or talking about risks they didn't know existed, it's a way to gain credibility.

How do you quickly build and then manage relationships? It's much more difficult in a retained situation to have, for example, regular lunches with the executive team. But [companies] have full-time employees who travel all the time, so [like them] you're dealing with conference calls, you have to be responsive to emails, having scheduled face time on-site. That's very helpful. You can see the people and hear their experiences and the side conversations that are helpful to understanding what's going on and making sure things aren't going sideways. And some of it is typical relationship stuff -- using humor where appropriate, watching yourself under stress because people really look to you to see how they should react.

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