Securing interim technology leaders (Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, and Chief Information Security Officer) is often the right choice for organizations with unexpectedly vacant executive positions. However, the urgency to fill the interim role can quickly lead to less-than-optimal decisions, unclear expectations, and confusing communication. 

Clarifying your intentions early in the process will increase the likelihood that you bring on the right interim for your organization's unique circumstances, and then position the interim leader to be a high contributor to your organization. To get the process off to a strong start, here are six questions that will help lead to a better outcome.

#1: What role do you want your interim executive to play?

As you define the interim role, take time to articulate your appetite for change and the degree of business impact desired.   Below are four possible roles, either individually or in combination, that might represent what your organization is looking for: 

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  • Caretaker. Some organizations prefer to delay strategic changes until their new permanent technology leader is hired. Interim leaders in this situation typically focus on risk reduction, moving current projects forward, and generally "keeping the lights on" rather than changing strategic direction or optimizing the technology organization.

  • Definitional. Companies may have uncertainties about how their needs match up with the range of technology leadership roles available. The company may be committing to an executive level technology leader for the first time, or the previous leader may have underperformed or been a poor fit. An interim technology leader in this situation can help an organization define what the ongoing role should be and lay the groundwork for a successful full-time hire or long-term fractional position.

  • Turnaround. Organizations contending with difficult circumstances may need an interim leader to help them through a situation that is negatively impacting the technology organization and/or the business as a whole. Interim executives can lead organizations through the current pain point and initiate a turnaround and/or reset. Asking your interim leader to make some of the painful changes can create a clean slate that enables the permanent leader to hit the ground running and be more successful.

  • Transformational. Companies where the current technology state and/or the technology department is not driving business success should consider transformational interim leadership. This leader can take the technology organization and technology platform to the next level so that it drives business strategy instead of hindering it. If and when the timing is right to onboard a permanent technology leader, the organization may prioritize other skills over transformational leadership since a more sustainable organization and/or solution is then in place.

#2: What authority and responsibility do you plan to give your interim technology leader?

Companies should assess their level of comfort with allowing interim leadership to assume executive and management functions including staff supervision, contract negotiation, signature authority, budgeting, performance reviews, attending executive team meetings, and presenting to the board. As organizations think through how these functions would typically be performed by someone at this level, they must ensure that the interim leader has the authority necessary to perform the identified role successfully. For example, instructing the interim leader that they shouldn’t spend time meeting with other business executives, when the interim is being tasked to lead a major enterprise project, places the interim in a no-win situation of being responsible for an initiative without the authority needed to complete it.

Organizations must also keep in mind that any authority or responsibility outside of the interim leader’s purview must be handled by another trusted and qualified team member. And once these decisions are made, they must be communicated thoroughly to avoid confusing the organization.

Many interim assignments are successful specifically because the interim leader has taken responsibility and accountability for these very functions.  It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the lack of a W2 status does not necessarily preclude an interim leader from taking on these responsibilities.

#3: What are the priorities you want the interim leader to focus on?

Unless day-to-day responsibilities of the previous executive have been delegated elsewhere, recognize that the interim leader will need to continue to handle these tasks as well as taking roughly 30 days to assess the current state and identify any immediate risks. Therefore, as with the previous incumbent, the interim leader is not a full time project leader.  Most interim assignments last a minimum of three months, and more commonly six to nine months. If the interim period is closer to three months (e.g., vacancy due to parental leave), the initial priorities should focus on 30/60/90 day timelines.  Otherwise, consider taking advantage of the fresh perspectives and energy that interim leaders bring, and establish longer-term priorities such as cloud adoption/migration or enterprise software upgrades.

#4: Do you need the interim leader to work on a full-time basis?

If organizations have defined the interim’s responsibilities to be only a portion of the incumbent’s role, part-time leadership may be a reasonable approach, although full-time hours are often needed for the initial 30-day assessment period. 

Depending on the state of the technology organization, this interim period of leadership may be an optimal time to examine alternative models, such as long-term fractional leadership by a more experienced leader than the company might otherwise be able to afford or attract to a full-time role.

#5: How are you going to introduce the interim leader to your organization?

Interim executives should be introduced to organizations by their top leaders. Business leadership should communicate clearly the interim’s role and extend public support for the interim on behalf of the leadership team to mitigate any gaming of the situation, such as direct reports jockeying to oust the interim.

#6: Should you start your search for a permanent leader before or after you engage an interim leader? 

The timing of the search for a permanent leader should be carefully considered. An interim technology leader can buy organizations time to sort through the possibilities. For example:

  • Should the interim leader be retained to complete a major initiative so that a leader with a different skill set can then be hired?
  • Should the interim leader assist with the hiring process by refining the job description and assessing candidates?
  • Should a longer term role be considered for the interim leader as an alternative to launching a search?
  • Identifying an interim leader in advance can mitigate leadership gaps during an organization change.

Set your interim technology leader up for success.

Taking a step back from the rush to secure an interim technology leader and considering these questions is worth the time it takes. Once that person is on board, they will have the information they need to hit the ground running, and the organization will have a clear understanding of how to best interact with and leverage the interim leader's talents and expertise.

Author: Gail Holmberg

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