Beat the Clock

Interim CIOs play many roles, from savior to enforcer, but good cop or bad, they act quickly and move on.

Pete Shelkin's tenure as CIO at San Juan Regional Medical Center lasted four months, a short stint even by today's fast-paced standards. Still, Shelkin achieved his goal, which was to devise a plan to push the Farmington, N.M.-based hospital's IT operations to a new level of performance.

Most CIOs would want more time to tackle such a task, but Shelkin figures the brevity of his assignment helped him. "When you're coming in as an interim [CIO], you're looking to figure out what the organization needs done and get it done quickly without setting your own tone," he says.

Despite the fleeting nature of their work, temporary CIOs like Shelkin say they're expected to do much more than provide caretaker services. They're often hired to turn around departments, develop strategies and drive change. As tough as that can be for full-fledged executives, those in interim positions say their jobs come with extra challenges that demand a separate set of skills. They say they're fully up to the task.

"A temporary CIO needs to be a politician, analyst and therapist," says Tom Costello, president and CEO of UpStreme Inc., a consulting firm in Malvern, Pa.

That's just the start. Interim CIOs, like their permanent counterparts, must understand how technology supports a company's business goals, experts say. But because of the job's condensed time frame -- temporary CIOs say the length of their assignments ranges from a few weeks to more than a year -- they must be able to move more quickly than permanent execs.

Paul M. Lemerise, a partner at Atlanta-based Tatum Partners LLP, started in January as interim CIO at Pharmavite LLC, a Northridge, Calif.-based vitamin manufacturer and distributor. He has already restructured Pharmavite's IT organization.

But Lemerise says the ability to act quickly is only one of the skills he needs. Prior experience is a must, and experience with turnaround situations is also crucial. "Otherwise," he says, "you'll fail miserably."

Beat the Clock
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Image Credit: Larry Goode
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Still, temp execs say that's not enough. They must bridge business and technology, handle staffing issues, oversee projects and deployments -- the usual tasks of any CIO -- but with neither an in-depth understanding of a company's history nor a network of familiar co-workers.

Marc Grossman, president of New York-based Smart Solutions for Health Care, places CIOs into interim positions in the health care industry. He does his homework before matching executives with clients.

He recently placed a temporary CIO at a 250-bed facility in the Northeast. Before making the placement, he asked a host of questions: Why did the previous CIO leave? Does the CIO report to the CEO or chief financial officer? What's the CEO's management style?

Grossman chose a colleague who so far seems to be the right fit: The individual has a strong technical background, is familiar with the hospital's systems and will be able to implement plans without ruffling feathers.

That last trait is often critical, experts say. Temporary CIOs must deal with a tangle of personal and professional dynamics unique to their situations. Consider, for example, working in the top IT spot after the previous CIO was fired. "You're dealing with people who are friends of the CIO, enemies of the CIO and constituents of the previous CIO," Costello says. "All these people are getting in the mix."

Given that, Lemerise says, interim CIOs must learn to use their influence quickly and effectively. "You have absolutely no span of control; you have tremendous span of influence," he says.

Someone skilled at influencing is a valuable asset, says Larry Johnson, CIO for the government of South Carolina. "When you're in an interim position, you have to be able to facilitate agreement among different parties. As an interim, you don't come in with a huge stick," he says.

When Johnson needed an interim CIO at a state agency, he named a woman who had been running an application development organization for a different state office. "This is an agency that wanted change," he says, explaining that the woman has been charged with developing a plan to upgrade the agency's infrastructure.

"She has some built-in credibility because she comes in from the outside," he explains. "She can move forward change and get people moving without worrying too much about whether this person's going to hate me in a year."

Johnson also says he picked her because she's good at getting people to talk.

Bad Cop

Other interim CIOs say that they're brought in specifically to be the "bad guy" -- to get in, push through change, then move on so the permanent CIO can come in with a clean slate. "Organizations look to the interim CIO to do some of the dirty work," Shelkin says. "Bringing about change, you may create some enemies along the way. There just may be no easy way to get things done without having people hold grudges later. So having an interim guy come in -- it's sort of 'good cop, bad cop.' The permanent CIO can come in without any of the baggage of having made choices that were unpopular with some people."

Steve Fleagle became interim CIO of the University of Iowa in Iowa City in January 2004, a promotion from his job as director of telecommunication and network services. He expects to stay on as interim until July, although he's also a candidate for the permanent post.

Fleagle sees limits to the amount of strategic change a temporary exec can -- or should -- undertake. "I'd hate to take the organization off in one direction and then have the next CIO take it off in another direction," he says.

Budget decisions illustrate his point: Fleagle struggled when he had to make cuts, trying to figure out what effect his choices would have on the strategic options he'd leave for his permanent replacement.

Despite the limits inherent in his temporary post, Fleagle says the university had no choice but to fill the CIO spot -- even if it was with a temporary leader.

"I think that we've been steadily building momentum in the past 10 years," he says, "and my role is to continue the momentum."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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