View from the Bridge

Interim CIO: How to Optimize for a Successful Outcome

By Kirk Mahlen, Advisor

To quote from a popular Farmers Insurance ad: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”. The reality associated with unplanned / unexpected CIO turnover is that, while there may be themes, the number of possible scenarios is infinite and I would invite you to use your imagination. I’m confident that I could write a book (or at least several chapters) on this area alone. My point: every organization and situation is unique and highly variable and every situation requires a unique but consistent approach which I’ve summarized below. Quite simply, a successful outcome would include: satisfied client, goals and objectives met, and leaving the place better than you found it.

Theory: Every Interim engagement starts with an agreed upon and well-worded Statement of Work (SOW) and/or Letter of Engagement (LOE) which summarizes terms, conditions, goals, objectives, deliverables, scope, etc. at varying levels of detail – typically higher level.

Reality: This represents the best we can do until we live and experience “it” which includes performing an Assessment in order to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and needs associated with a particular role – no small undertaking given the huge volume of available facts and information which require conversion to knowledge and, some would say, wisdom. A tried, true, flexible, and comprehensive methodology for performing this Assessment is invaluable. As always, the Assessment process relies on interviews, data gathering (review of existing documentation), focus groups, surveys, and questionnaires to support the effort.

At this point, you may be thinking, Assess what exactly? At a high level, my response is based on the tried and true “People, Process, and Technology” triangle / framework which has now evolved to a diamond with the addition of “Data”. An entire paper could be devoted to this topic. Suffice it to say that key components should include:
• IT Operations
• Staffing & Organization
• Technology & Infrastructure
• Policies & Procedures
• Architecture
• Applications
• Alignment with Business Strategy and Existing / Planned Initiatives
• Budgets / Financial Management
• Governance & Decision-making

Of course, there is always a pressing timeline with the ultimate purpose to inform executive decision making and develop action plans. Success further requires building relationships, developing trust, and effective communications – oral and written. Fancy PowerPoint presentations and graphics can help but do not always guarantee a positive result in the absence of the “whole package” which includes developing an understanding of how things really get done in an organization.

But what about “Burning Platforms” and other critical ongoing strategic initiatives you say? It is critical to find ways to quickly identify and resolve existing and potential “Burning Platforms” in order to eliminate the potential for major systems disruption and the resulting business / operational impact. Burning platforms almost always take precedence over any other work including the more formal Assessment.

I alluded earlier to the need to develop internal and external relationships at all levels to build trust and be effective – numerous vendors, government entities, partners, ventures, etc. which require ongoing interaction and management add to the complexity. Consider this: every time you start a new Interim role you may be required to meet / get to know 100 to 300 individuals over a short period of time (duration is typically 3 – 6 months) depending on organizational size, scope, and complexity. This is never a 40-hour / week assignment.

One of the most challenging areas requires dealing with IT and other staff morale issues resulting from the unexpected turnover of the former leader. In many cases, while it may not be appropriate to share details, it is always important for the management group to share a consistent message. In this regard, I have found that nothing beats formal employee surveys / questionnaires, focus groups, open door policy, informal get-togethers, consistent communications and expectation setting, celebratory activities, other meaningful opportunities for feedback, unified and aligned management team, management by walking around, and consistently applied rules, practices, policies, and procedures. You are definitely messing with culture here so be careful. This job is made much easier if the organization and workplace is guided by the principles of the Gallup Great Workplace Award or comparable organization.

All that remains is management and execution. How hard can that be?

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