Career: The gun is for hire

If you’re thinking of hanging out your shingle in the “Private IT” racket, you’d better have the moxie to deal with the likes of Big Red. Interim CIOs aren’t hired to conduct business as usual. As often as not, there’s dirty work involved.

Just ask Don Parker. His adventures in the “Private IT” trade go back to the mid-eighties, when he was hired on contract by Magna International. Since then he’s held a variety of interim IT executive roles and has made stops at a wide range of companies, including AG Simpson, Manulife Financial, and most recently, Shoppers Drug Mart.

“Interim CIO roles fall into two categories,” said Parker. “There are those where the company has a mess on their hands and they’re looking for someone to be the cleanup man, and there are engagements where the company is relatively happy with where their IT is, but they don’t think it’s going to get them where they want to go. It’s more of a future-oriented engagement.”

As for the messy jobs, you’ve got to go into them with your eyes open. Otherwise you can get in over your head.

“No matter how bad they think it is when they bring you in, it’s usually worse,” warned Parker. “There are almost always difficult things that have to get done, usually involving organization structure, people, skills, process — all those things that are difficult to deal with.”

But the news isn’t all bad, especially if you’ve got some steel in your backbone. “You can call it the way you see it,” he continued. “You know you’re not there for the long term, so you don’t have to play the game — the soft pedal. You can do the job. And I find you can do it more effectively as a contract person than as an employee.”

No matter how skilled you are as a hired gun, there will always be some jobs that are simply too hot to handle. In order to find out which ones to avoid, you’ve got to do some spadework — or more to the point, some Sam Spadework.

Interim IT contractor Chris Booth, a former CIO of Hydro One Networks, recommends talking to vendors to get the skinny on what’s going on behind closed doors at the prospective client. “You can try to figure out who the company’s major suppliers are,” said Booth. “Vendors have a good understanding of what their clients’ challenges are. If you have the right contacts, you can ask them what they think of the company and for suggestions on what might need to be changed.”

Then there’s the more straightforward approach, favoured by Teodor Gug, who has held interim IT executive positions with Travel Cuts and the Ontario Securities Commission. “The most direct way of doing the necessary due diligence is during the interview. It’s extremely important to ask the right questions in order to understand the company’s strengths and weaknesses and get a grasp of their infrastructure and their IT set-up. You can then match that quickly with what they want to do over the duration of your short-term relationship, and that gives you a reality check.” said Gug, now Assistant VP of Distributed Computing Services for Aviva Canada.

An eye out for danger

When you’re a hired gun, there’s always the possibility that danger may be lurking around the next corner. That danger may come in many guises, and if you don’t want to find yourself down a blind alley with your roscoe on your hip and your overcoat buttoned, you’d better know how to recognize them. One of the biggest dangers — not seeing eye to eye with the boss.

“The biggest pitfall is getting into a situation where you think you’re on the same page with the CEO or whoever brought you in, but you’re not,” said Parker. “For example, they say they want strategic development, new systems, new architecture, invest for the future, et cetera, but you find out that the wherewithal or the will to go through that kind of change isn’t there.”

It’s a recipe for disaster, and when it’s all over, you’re the one who ends up taking the fall. So how do you avoid getting caught up in this mug’s game? Teodor Gug says you have to get some straight answers when you’re in the negotiation stage.

“Even if it’s a six- or twelve-month contract I want to know if I have the power of hiring and firing, and power over the budget. These things are difficult to put in the contract but there probably should be a blanket statement indicating that you have the right level of authority to enable you to do your job — so that it’s not just a title that describes an empty shell.”

Life as a lone wolf

By their nature, hired guns are a breed apart from their co-workers.

“You’re very much on your own, quite frankly,” admitted Booth. “You really need to understand how things get done, and you’ve got to do it fairly quickly because you’ve only got a certain amount of time. So it’s a fine line you tread, trying to execute — because that’s what the person that hired you wants — but also figuring out how things get done in the company.”

According to Gug, the interim CIO’s relationship with the IT staff is different from that of a full-time CIO. “It’s a balancing act in making people share your vision and your approach to doing things, when they know in the back of their mind that you are interim,” he said. “It’s extremely important to get to their confidence and make them part of your dream. Otherwise, there will be a tendency not to give their full support.”

“It’s a very different relationship,” agreed Parker. “They know that you’re not there for the long term. So you’ll find those that are excited by it and want to work closely with you because they’ve been frustrated themselves and haven’t gotten the kind of respect they think they’re worthy of. Those are the ones who’ll jump on the bandwagon right away — better get involved with ‘the change guy’, this could aid my career. And then there are the IT folks that will say, ‘This guy’s only here for a while, we’ll just wait him out. Keep our head down, let the bullets fly and he’ll be gone, and we’ll go right back to where we were before.’ You have to manage those kinds of situations differently.”

Parker advocates being open with staff about your interim status. Pretending you’re not an interim manager doesn’t work, he says, and can lead to serious problems, both for you and for your staff.

But it’s not always possible to be up front about what you’re doing. Chris Booth’s last assignment called for his interim status to be on the Q.T. Two weeks prior to his departure, he announced the temporary nature of his role. This caused some disappointment among IT staff, but it was tempered by the fact that people were happy with the choice of an internal person to replace him.

“Personally, I like to tell everybody the truth about my status, but the CEO might have made the right call because if everybody knew you were there temporarily they might not put in 100 percent,” said Booth.

Watching your back

What kind of clout will you have with your peers in the business, the line execs, when you come in as a hired gun? Plenty — if you can deliver the goods. In fact your freelance status may even be an ace in the hole.

“Your relationship with the business lines isn’t necessarily compromised by your interim status. That relationship depends on the deliverables that you produce during your assignment. Even if at some time there is alienation between you and the management team, the facts will speak for themselves,” assured Gug. “It’s actually an advantage to be on an interim basis because you can force things to happen faster and more efficiently than if you’re caught up in the politics of the company.”

So whether you’ve been hired to accelerate business changes or to clean up a mess in the IT department, you’ll likely have the red carpet rolled out for you by the line execs. But don’t pop the champagne corks too soon. It may not be long before some of those execs will be looking to roll you up in that carpet and drop you off a bridge somewhere.

“There are still business executives out there with the notion that the IT guys are supposed to pull rabbits out of hats — throw it over the transom to the IT guys and they will somehow magically, without any knowledge of the business-user community, meet our requirements,” said Parker. “So sometimes attitudes change from the initial ‘Thank God you’re here!’ to ‘Oops, the microscope is on us as much as it’s on the IT folks!’ As a result, the relationship with some of the business people often deteriorates.”

One thing all of the interim CIOs we interviewed agreed on — if you want to succeed in the ‘Private IT’ racket, you’ve got to have some serious muscle protecting your back.

“It’s absolutely critical to have an executive sponsor,” said Booth. “If you don’t have a very senior person saying ‘We’re doing it this way. Here’s why, and this is the guy,’ you could find yourself on an island with no support, and you won’t get anything done.”

But that’s life ain’t it? One minute you are on top of the heap, the next they’re fitting you out for a wooden kimono.

Pulling the plug

The first thing you should know about wrapping up a ‘Gun For Hire’ contract is that it probably won’t end when it’s supposed to. These types of arrangements almost always drag on much longer than envisioned.

“Usually you can expect almost to double the initial duration of the contract,” said Gug. “Even when they ask you to do a focussed project, it will impact on the lines of business and on the whole infrastructure of the company. So it will always take longer than the proposal.”

Don Parker, for example, had a nine-month engagement with Manulife that ended up taking three years. Later in his career, he had a six-month contract with Shoppers Drug Mart that also took about three years.

He cautioned that the end of these engagements can be messy.

“I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve had some good ones and some bad ones,” he admitted. “I’ve done the cold-turkey end where you’re the full-time interim CIO until May 31st and on June 1st you’re gone. That’s tough if the client hasn’t made provision for replacing you. You walk away from all that work and it’s just going to fall apart because there’s been no bridge to the new person.”

Parker likes the idea of a transition period — ideally about three months long. “Six months is too long. By the three-month mark the new person already has got their teeth into it and they don’t need the other fellow around,” he said.

“Definitely document everything you’ve done,” urged Gug. “Make sure that people are at least comfortable with the deliverables and that they can run the thing without you or with your replacement.”

One last thing. You may be tough as nails, but don’t be surprised if cutting the cord on these interim assignments takes a toll on you.

“In a fairly short time you build a team and you get to know them — get them to believe in themselves — and it’s hard to walk away,” said Chris Booth. “So for me, there’s an emotional part to it. I’m going to miss these folks. We did some great stuff in a short time frame and now I’m moving on.”

Yeah, it’s no picnic leaving all your pals and everything you’ve worked for behind. For Chris and all the other IT execs who’ve decided to make a career out of packing up and moving on, we have only one piece of advice — the same advice offered to another gun for hire, Jake Gittes, a.k.a. Jack Nicholson.

“Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown.”

QuickLink: 052652

–David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.

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