A campus CIO leaves.

In the ideal scenario, the departure is anticipated — a scheduled retirement, or maybe a logical, long-expected career move. Careful succession, financial, organizational, and strategic planning have ensured that the right replacement and conditions are all set. The transition goes as expected. There’s little disruption to direction or operations.

In the more typical scenario, that’s not what happens. Maybe the departure

  • comes as a surprise,
  • involves firings,
  • triggers other departures,
  • depresses morale,
  • reflects or unearths problems within IT,
  • underscores inadequate or out-of-date strategic planning,
  • exposes resource shortfalls,
  • suggests IT reorganization, and/or
  • requires rethinking job descriptions before anything can happen.

In such circumstances, it’s wise to step back, give interested parties a chance to speak up, and learn from the experiences of others. That’s when interim leadership can make eminent sense. Here are two examples from 2017:

  1. The long-serving CIO and assistant CIO at “South County State”, a multi-campus public system, both retired abruptly, largely because retirement vesting made that attractive. IT operated reasonably well at South County, but was out of step with modern practices and challenges. IT leadership was defined operationally rather than strategically. Reporting lines needed change. Middle managers needed empowerment. South County engaged Fortium Partners to provide an interim IT head as the system assessed its IT resources and organization. This enabled dispassionate organizational and professional development, laying foundation for transition to a good, forward-looking hire.

  2. The situation is different at “Hardy University”, a private nonprofit campus: botched ERP implementation, failed audits, grossly inadequate resources, and wholesale departure of IT leaders and staff. In contrast with the situation at South County, IT at Hardy was in trouble. Hardy also engaged Fortium Partners to provide interim IT leadership. The Fortium partner’s work at Hardy has been much more radical than at South County: his charge is essentially to rebuild IT organization, resources, and staff from scratch. Given a frighteningly blank slate, he’s contemplating unorthodox strategies: for example, fully outsourcing IT heavy-metal operations and administrative applications to another campus that has excess capacity.

Engaging a Fortium Partners outsider has enabled senior leaders at South County and Hardy to think outside their historical IT boxes, and to move quickly to better plans and arrangements. At both, outside interim IT leaders have been able to look at situations, challenges, and potential improvements or solutions with fresh eyes. They have acted using an understanding of higher-education IT, but with respect rather than reverence, for institutional momentum. Whereas insiders might be suspected of choosing strategies to their personal benefit, outsiders aren’t.

Traditionally, campuses have found interim IT leadership internally: a #2 within the central IT organization steps in temporarily, or a sub-CIO from a semiautonomous campus unit such as the business school or computer-science departments, or someone from outside IT — perhaps the head of libraries, or facilities, or planning. Or a faculty member with arguably relevant expertise.

But these often work poorly. Having #2s or subunit #1s step up complicates searches, unless they fully remove themselves from contention — and why would a capable interim leader do that? Administrators and faculty members do their best, but often find themselves in over their heads. IT strategy and operations can suffer.

Given that, sometimes campuses look around informally for outside interim IT leadership — Provost A talks to Provost B, for example, and B, by chance, has heard about a recently retired CIO. Those informal finds can be great when they are timely and appropriate. But often they are neither.

And so, given the limitations on insider and informal interims, it can be productive and efficient to engage a firm or other organization whose stock in trade includes providing interim IT leadership — as South County, Hardy, and many other campuses have.

Fortium Partners offers a unique combination of higher-education expertise and broader IT experience across the CIO, CTO, and CISO technology leadership roles. Similar to freelancers, Fortium Partners commit individually to engagements. But unlike most freelancers, such the retired CIO Provost A hears about from Provost B, Fortium Partners benefit from the broad array of expertise available within the firm. They can easily bring to bear specialized wisdom they may not possess personally. They also benefit from an efficient administrative structure providing the established contractual, financial, and insurance support campuses require.

Technology leadership — including interim, fractional, and advisory offerings — is the only thing Fortium Partners does. Engaging Fortium triggers no conflicts of interest, which may arise with multi-service entities that also provide implementation, audit, outsourcing, headhunting, or other services.

There’s not much Fortium can add in the ideal scenario, when all the ducks are in a row. But Fortium Partners can be an excellent choice for campuses facing more typical IT leadership transitions accompanied by challenges, and Fortium stands ready to discuss such opportunities.

Author: Greg Jackson

Click to Contact