Getting off to a Great Start as a CIO

Congratulations if you are starting a new job as a CIO. However, as you are probably already keenly aware, delivering successfully today as a CIO can be a very complex proposition.  IT today, with all of the cost reduction demands, the rapidly changing technology, the impact of IT consumerization, and security and risk demands, is, simply put, tough work. It is complicated and hard work to get the complex IT mechanism, with all the usual legacy systems issues, to perform as well as the business requires. So, how to get off to a great start in your new role? What should you do in the first 90 days?

Having been placed in this situation multiple times, often when it was a ‘burning platform’, moving quickly and decisively early set the right tone and was critical for successful delivery in the first year. So, the first 90 days is not about settling in and meeting people and deciding the decor for your office. Nor is it about starting up a bunch of cool but pet projects for the CEO. Your focus should be on:

  • setting the right vision and goals for your team,
  • connecting with your customers, peers, boss, and your team,
  • and making sure you have identified what are the critical issues and are taking immediate steps to address them

Before you even start the role you should be thinking about what is the right vision for the role to be successful. And this vision must match up with the corporate mindset and reflect your approach to IT. And you should begin communicating your vision almost immediately upon starting the role. It must be simple and direct. And it must be worthy of achieving. You can, and should start with broad strokes, focusing first on the cultural aspects (i.e., quality and service availability will be job 1, or we will become the best xxx platform in the industry, or we will be efficient and easy for customers to utilize, etc). Then, as you gain the knowledge on the corporate initiatives and the areas and changes to be addressed, you can fill the vision with clear goals and an effective outline on how to get where you want to go. To ensure the proper matchup with the corporate vision, do your homework. In addition to the typical material, I always find it useful to sort aspirations from the primary thrust of the corporation. Usually the corporate vision can be easily cascaded to your vision but ensure that aspirational elements (like product innovation in a company that is successful based on great customer service or operational efficiency) do not become front and center. Make sure your vision pays heed to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the company’s primary value chain. And match up the vision with your operating principles.

Launch your vision for IT in the first few weeks on the job. Keep it simple, direct, and aspirational. Then as you learn more, work with your team over the first two months to make it meaningful and real, with clear goals cascaded, and real metrics and measures on your progress.

The most important thing to do is connect with all the stakeholders of IT in the first 90 days. Obviously, you will meet early and often with your directs and the managers — listen first but also communicate your vision and key operating principles. If you make commitments in these, or any of your meetings, you must absolutely meet them. Your reputation is decided early by how you perform.

Spend plenty of time and connect with your boss and key peers. Make sure you understand fully what is expected and what is needed. Use the sessions to sound out the vision, goals, plans, and initiatives. And if they mention you ought to look into something, it is not a hint, put it at the top of your list for inspection.

Meet with your team, all of your staff. Visit them onsite and don’t just talk to them. Connect with them by setting up forums where you can listen and questions can be posed and discussion can occur. Don’t forget to spend time to succinctly communicate your vision and key expectations.

Meet with your customers – and most importantly, listen. If there are 1 or 2 key things you will get done in the short term you can communicate that but otherwise listen and find out what is important. What are the underlying issues the troubling your customer? Followup these sessions with time to discuss and set joint expectations and goals.

You should use these connection sessions to help you define what is important and what both the near term actions should be and the longer term goals that delineate your vision. I recommend writing up your finding and validating it with your boss. You can reach out to some of your peers to gain further review and refinement. Have the senior members of your team assist in crafting further details.

In addition to connecting to understand the landscape, you must also inspect. You need to ensure the big things are getting done, that the fundamentals are in place, and you have a full view of the major risks or threats that must be handled. Moreover, you cannot rely on a surface or summary view of what is going on. I recommend the following regimen:

  • Review the top 3 – 5 initiatives with a personal program inspection
  • Review the key production practices (change, incident)
  • Review the key business systems and understand upcoming releases, costs, security and quality practices, and outstanding issues
  • Tour the command center and the data center
  • Walk through the project methodology and several small to medium projects
  • Check out how new employees get technology (is it effective?)
  • Go to a branch or retail store, visit a call center. See how the business is using your technology and their view of it.
  • Walk through a new account opening process or product introduction process. This is often where these is sand in the gear

Note in each of these reviews you should include participants from those who report directly to those at the line level doing the work – you will need to get unfiltered information and if you are only meeting with managers, you will miss out on the real data. And bring your senior staff along, they need to get the unvarnished view as well.

As you get the reviews completed, you will find some eye-opening observations. Use this additional information to improve your plans or launch initiatives in-line with the vision to address problem areas. Just as importantly, use the real data to identify what to stop doing. What reports are not needed? What processes can be streamlined? What initiatives do not really matter to the business What hobbies is IT doing that should be stopped? How many labs does your team have or how many 3rd party fishing expeditions are being funded that do not address the core issues and goals of the business? Part of being a great IT leader is discerning what should not be done, not just adding to the workload.

Still within the 90 days, as you are wrapping up your reviews turn your attention to IT and risk governance. By now, you should have a good perspective of where the problem areas are and where processes need to be streamlined. Use this knowledge to adjust the IT governance with an eye towards ensuring problem areas (especially those associated with endemic quality issues) have ongoing oversight. And streamline the governance to match updated processes. Lastly, review all governance for clear accountability and flow down of authority. By setting a good governance foundations, risks and problems will not surface months or years later due to a poorly constructed governance framework.

And within the 90 day window, take the right actions on your team. You need to spend the time observing your team and identifying the weaknesses. And while you can understand that everyone will have an excuse why some things were not addressed previously (that are not clear should have been addressed), you will need to ascertain if they were really hamstrung or are just not effective leaders with their own initiative or the right skills. Be careful about wholesale replacement or just bringing in those who were loyal to your before. An outstanding leader is someone who can build another world-class team with a new set of team members. One of the greatest football coaches, Joe Gibbs, won the Superbowl three times with three different quarterbacks. Nearly everyone else who won multiple Superbowls did it with the same quarterback. In any case, spend the time with your team to assess them, and begin to address the weaknesses either by coaching and development, or with talent replacement or augmentation. This will carry on after the first 90 days (as you are never really done here) but you need to get off to a good start.

So, in summary:

  • define and begin to communicate your IT vision
  • connect with your boss, your customers, and your team
  • inspect the critical work underway with your organization and understand how your technology is delivered and perceived by your customer
  • use the knowledge gained to fill out your vision and establish tactical plans and long range goals
  • communicate and publish your plans and provide your personal engagement to the work
  • assess your team and begin to address any weaknesses

While there is quite a bit to do, these are the things that will underpin your later success. This reference page was first posted on my blog at InformationWeek (where you can see the original post).

Best, Jim



One Response to Getting off to a Great Start as a CIO

  1. Deepa Nair says:

    An eye opener, lots to learn. Thanks for sharing the 90 days plan.

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