Education

Rent-a-CIO role offers unique career path

Taking the job of a so-called rented or consulting CIO offers constant project challenges. It's not for the newbie or someone who doesn't like change, but it can be rewarding for experienced CIOs with a take-charge attitude.

After 25 years in IT, CIO Pat Dwyer wanted a change. She’d already been a successful CIO at several Fortune 500 companies and had done a stint at a startup as CEO. But when the startup didn’t spark, rather than return to conventional, permanent corporate employment, she chose the CIO consultant route.

It’s a career path attracting many CIOs for a variety of reasons—selection of projects, handsome financial rewards (equal to that of a corporate CIO), and the potential for travel.

But being a CIO for rent is not for everyone, and it’s no place for would-be CIOs to cut their teeth. Clients paying $250 an hour or more for top brass expect their “rented CIO” to be seasoned, tough, and ready for the task.

Helping companies in transition
Part of the draw to the consultant/rented CIO path is the variety of work assignments. A temp CIO is usually engaged to work at small to midsize companies and, to a lesser extent, large companies. They may be brought in to spearhead a major initiative, fill a supplemental or mentor role for a lead IT person, or do strategic planning for venture funding or a troubleshooting scenario.

It’s not uncommon for the consultant CIO to assist in the selection of outsourcing partners or enterprise software packages—basically anything in which a company feels out of its comfort zone. During Dwyer’s 18-month consulting CIO career, she’s even been tasked with a one-day assignment—a walk-through of a work plan to do a technical conversion of a Novell e-mail system to Microsoft.

The short assignments have been few for Dwyer, who began as a CIO consultant—not as an independent—with the firm Tatum CIO Partners, a national consultancy of CIOs.

After just four months with the firm, she received a full-time contract. She now travels from her home in Lafayette, IN, for a four-day workweek at a specialty paper manufacturer in York, PA. Day five is a travel day. What started as a temporary engagement has turned into a one-year contract. She is now recruiting and interviewing candidates to replace her because the company wants to hire a permanent CIO.

Transitions a common role
CIO Warren Harrington of Chicago-based Blackwell Consulting Services, management and information technology consultants, helps companies work through transition.

“Sometimes you’re brought in because the board or the executive leadership feels that the tech function is not providing the type of capabilities that are necessary,” explained Harrington. The IT executive may be asked to strategize and then get involved with stabilizing operations, so another executive can step in to run the show.

That’s been the charge of independent CIO consultant Rick Freedman in his 10-hour-a-week contract with Liberty, MO-based Point to Point, a company providing storeroom and warehouse management services for large corporations. Freedman, author of Building the IT Consulting Practice and a Microsoft columnist, has been working on strategic growth plans, software revisions, and people management.

No place for the inexperienced
To succeed, Freedman, like all rented CIOs, has to be a quick study of what’s happening within a company’s IT organization. Whether the CIO is on-site every day or only a few hours a week, the client expectation is the same—that the CIO will add immediate value.

“The clients need individuals who can come into an organization and who can communicate at the executive level as well as with the technical staff,” said Dwyer. People who are best suited to the CIO role must rapidly grasp the IT landscape and obstacles to success and “make recommendations on what needs to be done and articulate the rationale for those recommendations,” she added.

For this reason, being a consultant CIO is not for the inexperienced, and it’s definitely the wrong move for someone wanting to get on the CIO career path.

“I have seen a number of consultants from the Deloittes and Accentures [big-name consulting firms] of the world who have moved into the CIO role from consulting,” said Dwyer. “But it’s more challenging to do that than to work your way up the ranks from within the organization.”

A consulting CIO engagement isn't going to provide enough workplace consistency to enable a person to learn how to do IT budgets or manage an IT staff. “You’re not going to learn that in consulting,” said Dwyer. “It [rent-a-CIO role] is a career move that people need to think very seriously about.”

Pluses and minuses
Working as a rented CIO appeals to those who enjoy setting plans in place and then moving on to a new challenge. IT executives who prefer running departments and dealing with maintenance won’t find many opportunities for that in this career.

Those who despise corporate politics will find the work appealing. Because the temporary CIO is hired to fix what’s broken—substandard staff, backward executive beliefs, or inadequate systems—he or she can do so without fear of political consequence, noted Harrington.

Everyone knows the contracted CIO is there to get things done and that’s all. “[Contract CIOs] can be the scapegoat and all the frustration can leave with them when they go,” he said. “But you’ve also got to be the kind of person that isn’t going to be bothered by some of the changes that you’ve done if they’re not appreciated.”

For some, such as Dwyer, meeting new colleagues and extending her career network are strong benefits of the work.

Economics and stability
For the CIO who decides to go it alone, the ongoing challenge of consulting work is finding clients. Freedman said his professional notoriety as a published author, his personal network, and his senior-level IT experience at Citicorp, Dun & Bradstreet help him in his quest for clients.

That challenge can be steep for someone with little or no networking contacts. CIO consultants say well-known, very public CIOs are in the best position to consider going independent.

“If you’ve been the CIO for American Airlines, everyone knows you,” said Harrington. “You can generally breakout your own firm. But for most people, that’s not the case.”

To avoid the ebbs and flows of inconsistent income, both Harrington and Dwyer recommend working with a consulting firm. The firms add the clout and credibility that CIOs without pedigree lack.

With the firm’s imprimatur, the CIO will enter a company with more personal credibility, and the firm will also be able to charge rates that few could dream of asking on their own. Plus, if placement is slow, the firm picks up the slack and the CIO continues getting a paycheck, at least for a few weeks, before the firm reevaluates the CIO’s marketability.

Being independent offers the CIO none of these benefits. "I think most people who have experience in a variety of industries would work for a firm, and that's where you get most of your business," said Harrington.

For the independent, there’s always the chance that a company might be in the “try before you buy” mode, and if satisfied with the CIO’s performance, extend a full-time job offer.

“Companies are nervous about getting the right person,” said Freedman. “Some will do this temp CIO position and if they find a candidate they like, they’ll make him an offer.”
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