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Interim CIOs Favored as Organizations Seek Digitalization Push

Pressure to modernize the tech stack is a key driver of the demand for interim CIOs, who can serve as targeted change agents.

Organizations are turning to interim chief information officers (CIOs) as they look to rapidly modernize technology across the business.

The onset of COVID-19 put additional pressure on companies to digitally transform, which has also played a major factor in the rising demand for interim CIOs.

Another factor is the limited market for top technology talent, which makes the search for the ideal CIO intensely competitive: Companies cannot afford to wait when a CIO vacancy arises.

“It can take at least six months before an open CIO position is filled, and many companies simply don’t have the internal talent to step in on an interim basis,” explained Dennis Baden, Heidrick & Struggles’ global managing partner of the technology officers practice. “By finding interim CIOs, companies are able to fill in those crucial leadership gaps.”

Data from Business Talent Group, Heidrick & Struggles’ subsidiary that specializes in placing independent talent, shows that between 2020 and 2021, demand for interim CIOs, chief information security officers (CISOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) grew 83%.

This is happening because of an overall talent shortage juxtaposed with talent growth in the on-demand talent pool, coupled with more demand for the CIO role because of digital transformation.

“Companies need more from the CIO; it’s harder to get this talent, they need to move faster, and there's fantastic talent that can work remotely,” he explained.

Neil Price, head of practice, CIO and executive technology leadership for Harvey Nash Group, pointed out the concept of an interim CIO is not new. However, it is becoming ever more attractive due to the volume of technology transformation that businesses are looking to execute to keep pace in the post-pandemic digital environment.

“They need accelerated change, and for this, an interim CIO who comes in with a very specific brief and a clear deadline or end-date can bring the concentrated focus and impetus needed,” he said. “It’s easier to deliver change with a fresh set of eyes, and this is something an interim CIO offers.”

He added the concept of an interim CIO can apply equally across all types of business, and any organization that wants to change at pace can see the benefits, whether it’s a small or medium-sized business or a large enterprise.

“We are also seeing interim CIOs brought into some scale-ups or start-ups, although here the focus is on ensuring the right infrastructure and approaches are embedded for growth in the first place rather than on transformation,” Price added.

A sudden CIO resignation or gap in that post often triggers an organization to consider an interim CIO, whether from inside or outside the organization.

The most common interim CIO prototype is someone at a later stage in their career, who has previously served as a CIO, does not have a desire to remain in the position on a permanent basis, and who will act in the best interest of the organization.

An interim CIO is typically brought in to deliver specific results by a certain deadline, meaning there’s an end date involved.

From Price’s perspective, it’s about impact, achieving rapid senior buy-in, and delivery.

“A permanent CIO has a longer term, which is more around evolution of the tech estate than transformation,” he explained. “That said, with typical tenures around three to five years now, the differentiation between permanent CIOs and interims is narrowing.”

If a permanent CIO stays beyond five years, they’re likely to be working on the 2.0 of what they’ve already done.

For the search process, businesses need to be completely focused on the results they’re looking to achieve and select the right candidate based around their ability to deliver against it.

“You will want someone who has ‘been there, done that’ so no gap in leadership emerges while you seek a full-time CIO,” Baden said. “This also can mean you don’t need to rush and make a hasty decision on a new CIO. You can find the right fit for your organization, long-term.”

He pointed out that’s exactly why they’ve seen more demand for insurance CIOs.

“Many companies have major technology projects in flight, whether it is digital or data transformation critical to driving their business,” he noted. “They require a strong interim CIO quickly who can hit the ground running to avoid a time gap or a major delay in these projects.”

Filling that interim role soon also can help retain valuable engineering talent who, if they see instability at the top, might look elsewhere or take recruiters’ calls.

“Engineering jobs are so hot, an organization doesn’t want to risk losing such talent,” Baden said. “That reason also is driving the demand for strong insurance CIOs who can take charge and right the ship.”

Price said it’s essential to bring in the right person, because organizations need someone who can move at pace from strategy to value and deliver concrete results.

That means it’s vital to look closely at what value each candidate has brought before through their own specific efforts.

“It’s not about going for a short-term version of a long-term appointment, or just opting for the person with the most glamorous CV,” he said. “We always advise businesses to ask themselves: who is going to deliver value, fast, and has the evidence and track record to back that up?”

Looking at it from the candidate side, Price pointed out being an interim CIO appeals to many individuals and there are plenty to choose from.

“It’s a model that works well on both sides and therefore we’re seeing a buoyant interim CIO market,” he explained. “The digital transformation journey is far from complete for most organizations – if indeed it ever ends – and they will continue to look for high-impact individuals to deliver specific time-critical outcomes.”

When it comes to the selection process for a position of this importance, Price said it’s crucial that all key senior stakeholders are involved.

“There should be input at the highest levels,” he said. “It’s too important to leave to chance.”