The Grill: Laura Pettit Rusick

This CIO-for-hire gets inside dozens of IT groups, and sees a lot in common.

Working as an interim 'retained' CIO for multiple clients, Laura Pettit Rusick leads IT departments at various small and midsize companies, and that experience gives her insight into the technology challenges and opportunities that exist in a wide swath of U.S. businesses. Insider (registration required)

As president of OPT Solutions, a provider of IT management services, Laura Pettit Rusick has spent the past seven years working as an interim "retained" CIO, leading IT departments at multiple small and midsize companies, mostly on a part-time basis. The experience has given her new insight into the technology challenges and opportunities that exist in a wide swath of U.S. businesses. Rusick, a member of the Society for Information Management who had worked in full-time IT management positions in larger organizations before becoming an outsourced CIO, says her current work has shaped her perspective on what it takes to be an effective executive.

Laura Pettit Rusick

"It's very utilitarian, but my smartphone, which is a Droid Razr Maxx. I can't live without it."Why tweet? "I use it as an outgoing communications tool. I don't tweet very often, but I tweet out articles that I think would be interesting to my followers."If you weren't in IT, what would you be? "An architect. From the time I was a little kid I was drawing floor plans."What's your next career step? Continue to grow the company and open additional offices.Hobbies: Golfing and showing my dog, a Belgian Tervuren, at American Kennel Club dog shows.

What are the greatest challenges you face as a retained CIO? One is certainly balancing time. We're typically not on-site eight hours a day. We're flexing our time throughout the week. With multiple clients, often the peaks of work will balance themselves out, which is nice. But there are times when scheduling can get pretty interesting. I find if there's a crisis, clients will understand. The other piece is not having as much face time.

Does being an interim or outsourced CIO give you some advantages over a full-time exec? From a CEO's perspective, it really does give advantages. It would be cost-prohibitive for a lot of midsize companies to hire a full-time experienced CIO. And you have the experiences of working with other clients at the same time, so, for example, you could have a software selection going on in one organization and two months later have the same thing somewhere else. That cross-pollination is very helpful to the client. And bringing in best practices regardless of industry is important as well. The other piece of it I've found is that I have a much better network than I ever had as a full-time CIO. So I'm able to bring people to the table. I've had CEOs ask for certain kinds of people because they know I have those resources.

How do you quickly establish trust and expertise? I find that being frank while being empathetic is a big part of the equation. People want you to be honest but because they've been living with a bad situation for a while they also don't want to be criticized for it. It's about how we move forward. The other piece is a pure business piece. As soon as you can show or discuss early benefits by identifying new benefits or talking about risks they didn't know existed, it's a way to gain credibility.

How do you quickly build and then manage relationships? It's much more difficult in a retained situation to have, for example, regular lunches with the executive team. But [companies] have full-time employees who travel all the time, so [like them] you're dealing with conference calls, you have to be responsive to emails, having scheduled face time on-site. That's very helpful. You can see the people and hear their experiences and the side conversations that are helpful to understanding what's going on and making sure things aren't going sideways. And some of it is typical relationship stuff -- using humor where appropriate, watching yourself under stress because people really look to you to see how they should react.

As someone who gets an inside look across multiple organizations, what are the biggest technology challenges they have in common? I've found, particularly after the past recession, that investments got delayed so they're dealing with outdated software, infrastructure, servers and networks that have not been updated in some time. So you have some basic foundation issues that are challenges, and it makes it really difficult then to work on the projects that make them more nimble as a company to serve their customers better. Another thing that's common is that companies are relying on IT staff who aren't serving the company well. Their roles have been expanded beyond their capabilities, their responsibilities don't mesh with the company's culture, they're not customer-service-oriented, but [the companies are] afraid to make changes. It's really a big issue out there.

Do you see any common errors across organizations? There is a commonality of people living with software beyond its useful life cycle. My favorite one is phone systems out of warranty for years and you ask the business: What would happen if your phone system went down? They look at you with horror. They don't know the risk to the business they have.

You work with small and midsize companies.What will they need from technology to be competitive in the future? They have to have a strong IT foundation. They have to have good basic applications and they have to have a hardware infrastructure that in general is up to date so they can be more nimble. [When they have that] then you can get into what enables that specific business to be more competitive. And the other part of it, and it's a constant quest, is the need for better data or the ability to have the data in a format that can be analyzed. That's always been a need, but the need for data is increasing.

What are their biggest obstacles in meeting those IT goals? There are so many things people want to do, but you can't tackle it all at once. So it's having a longer-term vision and finding all the pieces first, all the project work that needs to get done to fulfill that, while at the same time being able to adjust course because nothing is stagnant. And having patience.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt ( marykpratt@verizon.net)

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "The Grill: Laura Pettit Rusick" was originally published by Computerworld.

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