Now Renting: IT Leaders

Corporations today lease hardware, outsource help desk functions and rent software. Now, under increasing pressure to cut costs and make IT investments pay off, an increasing number of enterprises are renting CIOs. These hired guns are brought in to whip

Mark Westling, CIO at National Pen Corp., in San Diego, is in the middle of fixing a stalled ERP project involving Oracle Corp.s E-Business Suite. Westling is also restructuring National Pens IT department and redefining the role technology plays in the companys business strategy.

What will Westlings reward be once he finishes these herculean tasks? Hell be expected to leave. Westling is a hired gun, brought in for eight months to get National Pens IT organization back on track. "My job is that of a change agent," said Westling, a partner with Tatum CIO Partners LLP, in Atlanta. "Im brought in to turn an organization around or help them get their house in order. When the job is done, so am I."

Corporations today lease hardware, outsource help desk functions and rent software. Now, under increasing pressure to cut costs and make IT investments pay off, an increasing number of enterprises are renting CIOs. These hired guns are brought in to whip IT operations into shape until a permanent CIO is found.

Several companies have popped up in recent years to provide interim IT management services by way of former CIOs or IT vice presidents. The companies include Transition Partners Co., in Reston, Va.; Cyber CIO Inc., in Hermosa Beach, Calif.; SCC Inc., in Orinda, Calif.; and Tatum.

The advantages of a temporary CIO are clear. Because temporary CIOs are outsiders, they can often make tough decisions in fixing IT departments without fearing the consequences. Not surprisingly, most organizations that bring in an interim CIO have struggling IT departments fraught with political battlefields and in need of an independent helping hand. In addition, because their tenure is limited, temporary CIOs with decades of high-level management experience can be affordable even to smaller companies that might not be able to hire such a person full time.

But, experts say, companies hiring a rent-a-CIO need to back that person with top-level executive support if they want to give the temp CIO a shot at getting the job done. Experts add that companies using temp CIOs must decide in advance what projects or initiatives should take precedence to maximize the impact of their expert.

"Many companies bring in temporary help to fix a problem or to put things back on track," said Tod Gregory, a managing partner at recruiting consulting company Korn Ferry International, in San Francisco. "They dont ask people to come in on a project basis like they would a consultant. Theyre looking for someone to take the reins and do some revamping."

Temporary CIOs need plenty of experience managing IT organizations, the ability to cope with conflict and engineer organizational change, and the ability to mentor others. The last qualification is quite important, experts say, because the temp CIO is often expected to find and prepare a replacement.

At National Pen, Paul Pickard, the chief operating officer, tapped into a wealth of experience in Westling. A top IT executive since the mid-1970s, Westling spent 18 years as a CIO with a high-tech manufacturing company and six years as a CIO in the publishing industry, among other assignments.

At National Pen, Westlings first task was to determine if centralizing the companys IT groups would help solve its IT management problems. At the time, there was no CIO, and three different IT organizations reported to three different executives. Political infighting was keeping the company from integrating technology into the companys business strategy. Partly because of gaps left by the IT organization structure, there were 400 open project tickets waiting to be processed. End users were frustrated, senior management was confused and IT managers were ready to quit. National Pen needed a big IT morale boost—and fast.

"We wanted to see if centralizing IT could work, but we werent committed to the organization structure," Pickard said. "We felt we could resolve a lot of problems by bringing in somebody from the outside and without a particular affiliation."

Then there was the $7 million ERP (enterprise resource planning) deployment that went belly up. Before Westling joined National Pen, he and Pickard determined deliverables. Pickard wanted IT aligned with the business strategy. He wanted his ERP system to work. He wanted Westling to mentor a junior staff member who would eventually take over as CIO. And he wanted to know if IT could work as a centralized department. Six months after bringing in Westling, Pickard said, the experience has been so good that hes now negotiating to extend Westlings contract.

While Pickard could have hired an outside full-time CIO, he said having an interim CIO meant he could justify—at least temporarily—paying more for expertise and talent than he was willing to pay on a long-term basis. In fact, Pickard said the monthly amount hes paying Westling and Tatum CIO Partners is two to three times more than hed pay a CIO on the payroll.

Not that all temp CIOs work out. Those who do, however, share a common characteristic: strong support from top management, which allows the short-term IT boss to meet the challenge of improving IT operations without feeling politically or emotionally bound to a particular organization. While a full-time CIO may feel uneasy about pointing out the failure of an expensive technology deployment, its the job of an interim CIO to tell it like it is.

"We have a relationship with the senior managers that I think is critical," said Jim Spitze, a partner at Systems Consulting Consortium, in Orinda, Calif., who has served as a temporary CIO at several San Francisco Bay area technology companies. "They know there is a problem, and theyre looking for us to provide some form of assessment. That makes it much easier to get the job done."

This doesnt mean interim CIOs can afford to ignore situations that may be fraught with political infighting among IT staff members. Spitze, whose consortium has 20 partners, each with 20 to 30 years of high-level IT management experience, said that in many situations, the current CIO is still at a company when someone from Spitzes organization is brought in to clean house.

In one situation, Spitze was brought in to a company by the chief operating officer while the full-time CIO was still around. Six weeks later, the full-time CIO was asked to leave, and Spitze took over the entire IT department while working with Korn Ferry International to find a replacement. While he was accepted by the IT department, Spitze said it often takes a lot of gentle political maneuvering to make sure interim CIOs dont end up in a tenuous situation where theyre resented by their IT staffs.

"I cant think of a single situation where we are simply invited to come in by a CIO to revamp things," Spitze said. "Often, a [chief financial officer] or CEO is uncomfortable about their systems department, and the CIO either resigns or gets fired. In those situations, third-party objectivity and building a relationship with the IT staff are key."

There are other benefits to temporary status. Hired guns said theyre kept on their toes by the wide range of challenges in revitalizing IT operations. "Were not brought in to watch the dials turn and to run the same meetings for the next 30 years," Westling said. "The excitement comes from the variety of assignments."