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CIO podcast: The rise of the interim CIO

Jill Chambers, Emmet Townsend, Pat Lynes, Mark Chillingworth and Christian McMahon picture by Callum Chambers

Interim CIOs were once looked upon as an emergency resource hired to keep the lights running or steady the IT ship during a crisis. But in recent years the role has transformed into being at the forefront of business change. As a result those choosing an interim career has also transformed.

In the last three years the interim CIO become increasingly prevalent and importantly, more impactful on organisations. Interim CIOs Jill Lucas, Christian McMahon, Emmet Townsend, an interim transformation director and search expert Pat Lynes, discuss being, commissioning, ups and downs of the interim life in the latest Horizon CIO podcast.

With digital disruption weighing heavily on the minds of organisations, interim business technology leaders are in demand and they are desired because they bring a wide range of experience and skill sets to an organisation. Also, it cannot be escaped, interims are contractors and can be hired and deployed relatively easily and do not come with the challenges of redundancy. An interim CIO is a senior level member of the gig economy that has garnered many headlines of late in relation to Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders.

“As a transformation should take no more than 18 to 24 months at most, you can go to the interim market to get a transformation done quickly,” says Christian McMahon, who has been interim since the mid- 2000s. “The rapidity of an interim to deliver is what they are engaging in.”

“If there is a war on talent it may be easier to hire someone on an interim basis and that in itself an easy way of them getting a short sharp focus on something and it is appealing to organisation,” adds Jill Lucas, speaking on the Horizon CIO podcast.

Recruiter specialising on interim business leaders Pat Lynes of Sullivan & Stanley believes the increased calibre of CIO choosing an interim career has also helped in the rise of the interim as it gives organisations access to heavyweight skills at an affordable rate.

“I want a journey out of my career,” Lynes says of the CIOs that approach his London agency seeking fresh new challenges and the chance to throw off the shackles of corporate politics.

“A lot of companies, hire an interim before a perm CIO because firms don’t know what direction they are going in, they may be changing products, changing customers overhauling the entire experience, but with an interim will help shape the evolution for the company and then change the type of perm CIO they hire,” McMahon observes.

Consultancy fatigue

In 2017 Lynes joined fellow search leaders Kersty Bletso and Ross Stacey on the Horizon CIO podcast and proffered the view that organisations were suffering from consultancy fatigue and as a result opting for interim business leaders.  The three technology leaders joining the Horizon CIO podcast have all experienced just that.

“You often go in just after an organisation has had a consultancy in and it is in two different flavours, they have done a massive piece of work, created a strategy document and now they can’t afford to role it out as they have spent all the money on the strategy development. Or, they feel suffocated because the consultancy wants to press more people into the company to deliver the strategy,” says McMahon. “With the consultancies it can be big, can be monolithic teams.”

“Part of the problem is that the tier 1 consultancies are huge and the thinking moves at the same pace as the organisations that are tasking them to help them move faster,” says Emmet Townsend, an experienced interim who is also a former CTO with information business Dub and Bradstreet. “A bit like when it used to be said: ’you don’t get fired for hiring IBM’ if I bring in a big consultancy you can say I hired the best of the best.”

“There is a suspicion around motives with a lot of the consultancies,” says Lucas, a former CIO with Towergate Insurance and Belron.  “Where as with an interim you are only as good as your last gig, so what I have found, is that I have been incredibly motivated by the results and they have to be quick, but I am still working with my organisations best interests at heart as I have nothing else that motivates me, I need to get the best results for them, because that is a good outcome for me.”

“The consultancies will be replaced by boutique operations that can bring in teams that do work well together. There is fatigue and people are a bit risk averse,” says Townsend. “Unless consultancies change their business model it won’t change, because that is where they make their margin.”

“Organisations want more now, the historical view was of the consultancy coming in and creating a strategy and creating a new playbook or target operating model (TOM),” Lynes adds.

“A consultancy playbook often works for 60-70% of companies. A lot of consultancies will try and fit your company into their playbook because they insist it will work, so there is a degradation of expectation versus obligation,” McMahon says.


A decade ago interim CIOs brought temporary salvage, our three leading interims believe that organisations now engage them to bring about pace when change is needed in the face of a changing economic landscape. 

“I have been in perm roles where it would have been better to be on an interim basis as it was focused on the strategy and once that was done there was no need for that role,” Lucas says of the difference between those who are able to see and shape a change in organisational operations and those that are efficient and effective and operations.

“You are expedited into things much quicker, as they want to get someone in to look at things and I always think it is a brave leader that gets someone into look under the hood and it shows a sign of confidence in their own leadership that they want a fresh pair of eyes,” McMahon says of the increasingly advisory capacity interim CIOs have.

“You have got to say things in the right way, you have to put it in a statesman type way and often you are brought in to give that opinion that reinforces what they have already learnt. But the delivery is very important. I find you have to get into the natural rhythm of delivery that they are working in. You are not looking to embarrass people, you are looking to get into the rhythm of the company and to deliver well when you do deliver,” he says.

“As an interim part of your role is to bring significant change,” Townsend says. “There are going to be a couple of levels in the organisation that will either allow or block that and one way or another you have to find a way to relatively quickly find the people who have to be moved outside of the organisation because they will stop, active or passively, the change, so I think there is a bit of knack to doing that and not get called a mercenary.”

“I always evaluate the company you are in and I always present to board or the most senior level you have access to.  At that level you gain backing and if there are roadblocks to change you have a much stronger relationship with the board and you get them to move those roadblocks for you. You are there for a reason, to make change, and the company has to help you move forward,” McMahon adds. 

“You can deliver technology change without board support, but people and culture change, forget it. If you don’t have the CEO on board then look forward to a long and tortuous journey with probably not much in the way of results,” Townsend warns.


“One of the things I am seeing come to the fore is the coaching concept, where the right interims with the right mindset will work with the executive and coach them through the change so that they get the learning and continuous change in their career,” Lynes observes. “With consultants you feel that the IP and the learning culture is not left and that is not sustainable in today’s world. You have to have a change capability internally and a learning capability and I see interims playing a big part in up-skilling.

“I see a lot of interims open up the conduit for learning for the organisation and so they can start to learn again,” Lynes says.

“I’d say a large part of my role is up-skilling the team around me and leaving a legacy of some experience. In a lot of large organisations a lot of the people I am working with have been there for a long time, I am bringing experience from the outside world and I need to leave that behind, so a lot of my time is coaching and challenging and bringing an external perspective,” says Lucas.

“I often drill down into the team and you find the people who haven’t been given a voice in the past and you can then give them that voice,” McMahon says. “This can help lift talent in the organisation. Often they energise and become late bloomers. You then get the flow and support across the organisation.

“The new interim wants a legacy and a relationship. The old legacy of going in, burning a bridge and then moving on is not there any more,” he says.

Gig economy

So as a CIO listening in or reading this, should you move to an interim career? Lucas believes if you are a business leader that enjoys “transformation situations” it is an ideal career.

“I have never had so much fun and I feel unburdened by the normal joys of working for an organisation,” Lucas says with a smile. “It has freed me up to focus on the things I know I am good at and the things I love doing and I am less concerned with the politics and I have so much freedom to act with my interim hat on.”

“The person who wants to take on something that is either broken, or no longer fit for purpose, or just needs to change they’re generally not the sort of person that once they have done that and it becomes a situation of cranking the handle for the next little uplift they get no buzz from that,” Townsend adds.

Lynes adds that being an interim CIO is also about having a diverse portfolio career which includes non-executive directorships (NED), trustee roles and working with venture capital and private equity organisations.

“I think the game is changing when we look at human capital solutions with the gig economy,”

“Part of the skill I have tried to deploy in the last year or so is to flex with the organisation so if I just absorb myself to the culture I am not adding value at all, but if I go to the opposite extreme and push the organisation in a direction that is just going to lead to tissue rejection that is not going to help at all,” Lucas says. “So what I find is I am trying to shine a light and hold a mirror up and tell them what is not normal and tell them that will not work, but somethings I am just going to have to let it go either because it is so ingrained in the culture of the organisation that it is never going to change or it is a battle that is not worth fighting.

“The organisation I am working with at present has some fantastic talent in that organisation and they are really lucky to have them, but there are some downsides to having people work for an organisation for a long time and people like me can add capabilities that they don’t have, but they can learn,” she says. 

Townsend agrees and adds: “You have to be really good with people, you have got to be able to read the people, read the politics, you don’t want to play the politics, but you had better understand it because in a short amount of time you have to gain some credibility, because you have to be the one that can call out some irregularities and say the things that they don’t want to hear, but everybody already knows and I think as simple as that sounds, telling them something they already know is hugely powerful.”

“I think the game is changing when we look at human capital solutions with the gig economy,” says Lynes.  “It is not just about the ownership of talent with big long drives of building your leadership team, it is about access to talent and out there is this top 5% out there in the gig economy and can mix it up. The sheer pace of change is frightening and disruption is coming for most industries.

“So think about the access to talent and have a blend and inject the immediate talent and use them in a coaching and advisory capacity for your perms,” he says. 

“The gig economy is about the opportunities that arise, I started working with VC and PE and it gave me opportunities to work with interesting companies and it gave me a relationship with investment companies and it gave me a great vista of  technology companies,” McMahon says in response to Lynes.

“It depends on the personal drivers,” Townsend warns. “If you like to make considerable change and you like the satisfaction that comes with that and you can have that every couple of years, but if you are in a role for a number of years you will have to keep the lights on to a degree. If you want shares etc the construct is different.

“You have to be able to work with a bit of ambiguity.  Maybe in finding the next gig you may have a few months where I am not doing anything and mainly you have to be very adaptable.”

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