Staying Power

Staying Power

Forty percent of new executives fail. Executive coach and author Scott Eblin talks with CIO about how first-time CIOs can avoid the hotshot-to-has-been trajectory

You've coded databases, run the help desk and managed multimillion-dollar software implementations. You've paid your dues and climbed your way into the CIO post. Now you're ready to set your company's IT strategy, hobnob with the board of directors and explain to the market how the new business intelligence platform you're rolling out will help boost earnings per share. Right?

Well, maybe. As it turns out, earning that promotion from midlevel manager to IT executive is only half the battle. Succeeding in the CIO role — or in any first-time executive position, for that matter — is an entirely new front and one with its share of casualties. In fact, 40 percent of freshly minted executives are either fired or voluntarily resign from their posts within 18 months of stepping into them because they're ill-prepared to meet the demands of their new role, according to Manchester, a leadership development firm. So the odds are high that if you're a brand-new CIO, you'll be among those four in 10 who can't take the heat. Scary, isn't it?

The transition from manager to executive is so precarious because high achievers often don't realize that the skills and behaviours that propelled them to the top won't keep them there

The transition from manager to executive is so precarious because high achievers often don't realize that the skills and behaviours that propelled them to the top won't keep them there, says Scott Eblin, a former Fortune 500 human resources executive who is now an executive coach and author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success (Davies-Black, 2006). Eblin says that C-level executives have to assume new skills and relinquish certain behaviours that made them successful managers on their rise to the top (see "What to Pick Up and What to Let Go", below). This former vice president of Columbia Energy Group also notes that success in the upper echelon is made more challenging because executives actually operate with less information and less control over outcomes and results than middle managers, despite their higher level of power and authority.

CIO spoke with Eblin about the reasons why so many new executives fail, what it takes to buck that trend, the skills and behaviours new CIOs have to adopt and give up, and how CIOs can preserve their credibility with front-line employees even after they've reached the next level.

CIO: Why do so many first-time executives fail in their new roles?

Scott Eblin: It's a combination of a lack of preparation and a lack of understanding of the expectations they'll face as executives. What first-time executives don't fully realize is that the expectations are so much bigger. You're seen as a leader of the business — not just a leader of a function. You're expected to contribute to the broader leadership of the entire organization, and a lot of new executives don't realize that.

New executives also don't understand that what gets them to the top — achieving results in a particular function or skill or area of expertise — isn't what's going to keep them there. While some of the skills and behaviours they used on their way up, such as their ability to manage teams, will still apply in their new roles, they need to let go of other practices that got them to where they are today. Not understanding which new skills and behaviours to pick up and which to let go is the common denominator for failure for new executives.

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