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Look Before You Leap

Look Before You Leap

If you're contemplating taking a new job, first assess the lay of the land.

When you take a new CIO jobor similar executive position, what can you do right off to give yourself the greatest chance of success? That's one of the questions I get asked most frequently.

There's no doubt that the most successful CIOs take the time to assess the lay of the land before digging in to a new job. That means working through progressively deeper levels of understanding and commitment as you move from investigation of your choices to contract negotiation to those first months on the job. Here's the best of what I've learned.

Your Starting Point

Before you take any new job, you must understand where you'll be starting. That means getting a good view of all the different elements that can have an impact on you.

Industry and market dynamics. Having experience in an industry or sector doesn't necessarily mean you've taken a step back to analyse the macroeconomic trends (is it mature or developing?), market dynamics (what is the competitive situation?) and structural trends (are there likely to be major technological or regulatory disruptions?). As the past year has shown, these dynamics can have a huge effect on your success.

The enterprise. Many CIOs neglect to assess the overall business. What is the history and current financial picture? What is in the current investment portfolio, including not just technology projects but also business projects? How mature are the company's business and management processes? Don't forget to ask for any recent independent reports or analyses.

The people. In considering your potential colleagues, assess not only their leadership abilities, style, character, competence and chemistry but also their track record and likelihood of staying. I've heard countless stories of people unhappy with their jobs because they joined the company excited about working with a particular person, only to have him leave soon after. Look key people in the eye and ask them point blank what their plans are.

The job. I believe in not only knowing a position's history but also viewing its description as a rough draft that can be edited during a period of negotiation. Think about how the position has changed over time and the people who have had it, as well as those who may want it now. What are the scope, the reporting relationships and the unwritten expectations?

The setting. Take into account everything from your physical location and travel expectations to your office, support and technology needs. Nothing's too small to get right from the start.

Your Destination

The second aspect of getting the lay of the land involves defining what you're going to be confronting.

Problems and opportunities. In most organisations, there are too many opinions, too few facts and multiple points of view. You'll need to make your own assessment. Then judge the probability of getting collective buy-in on a direction. I've seen companies and good CIOs waste years solving the wrong problems and trying unsuccessfully to redefine them.

Success and failure. The next task is to define success or failure specifically enough so that the key players all can agree. Central considerations will be the specificity of your destination, how fast you have to get there, what risks you can take and what resource constraints you'll be operating under.

Strategies and tactics. Aligning goals and defining success won't help you if there isn't a common view of strategies and tactics for which route to take. Many of them may be written in a strategic plan. Few will be effectively translated into the realities of execution. It will be vital for you to get a sense of the organisation's capacity for formulating and executing strategy well.

Blind spots and biases. Probe unmercifully for sacred cows, sludge projects, unwritten rules, cultural dark sides and any other things that might jump out of the closet at you to make your life miserable and your job impossible.

Time. One of the hardest things to get a sense of during interviews is the timing and rhythm of work. What shot clocks are running? Where are the long lead times that haven't been thought about? It's vital to obtain clear expectations from the top about any areas where time pressure is significant. I know one executive who found himself in a job with a hidden key project failure that absorbed nearly all of his time for the first year. By then, he had lost credibility as well as all his energy.

Full Steam Ahead

Now how do you get the job done? The devil is in the details, but you won't have the leverage to negotiate them once you've signed a deal. So make sure you get them right beforehand.

Assets. The practical details start with your budget and other key resources. The best advice I've heard is to get a budget bigger than you need, if at all possible; that way you can give some of it away during the early part of your tenure, thereby enhancing your position and relationships with peers.

Control. Clearly understand your authority and accountability: where it is sole and where it is collective. In collective situations, what is your position and degree of power? Also, don't forget to anticipate changes of control and get terms in your contract that give you freedom and protect your assets. Finally, control is just as important in your eventual exit. Anticipate all scenarios and provide for them before you start.

People. If the existing staff isn't up to the issues you'll be tackling, you'll need to get the time, resources and approval- up front- to bring in a new team.

Access. Make sure you know how much time- and how often- you'll have to meet with your CEO. Identify other leaders you'll need access to and try to get agreements there as well.

Compensation. Finally, make sure you're taken care of in salary, benefits, performance bonuses, equity, severance benefits and other sweeteners. If you've never done so, ask a quality attorney or CIO acquaintance to share some of the best contracts or agreements they've seen.

No matter where you are in your career, the problems you face in a new position will be tough enough, so give yourself the best possible chance of success before you start.

Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur, government executive, consultant (McKinsey & Company) and inventor, and is the author of The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide to Making Decisions and Getting Results (Perseus Publishing, 2000). He is now chairman and CEO of Exolve in Washington, DC, focusing on next-generation Web-based problem solving

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