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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

What skills should you hold on to as CIO? And which skills do you need to let go?

All the great IT executives I've worked with know how to execute, understand the results they're trying to achieve and know how to align their organizations to achieve those results. That's what any good IT project manager would understand, and those are foundational skills for the executive level. The challenge then is to use those skills to hold others accountable for achieving results, rather than trying to accomplish those results on your own. Let go of the idea that you can closely monitor and track everything yourself.

New CIOs also have to replace their IT-centric point of view with a business-focused one. That's a shift [in mind-set]. I've seen CIOs have difficulty making it, particularly when they've come up through the ranks.

How can they indoctrinate themselves in the business?

First, if you don't already understand it, learn how the company makes money: What drives top-line growth and what drives bottom-line expense control. Then ask yourself and your team: "What do we do to support revenue growth and expense control?" That will tie you into that business-first mind-set.

CIOs also need to ask themselves: "What are the major components of the business that I'm not knowledgeable about, and who can I learn from?" They then need to establish relationships with senior-level peers and their direct reports in those functions. Attend their staff meetings and spend time listening to what their goals are. Don't just ask them: "What do you need from me?" Ask open-ended questions that will help them identify what they need from you.

At my last company, our CIO's basic routine was to say to the line managers: "Tell me what you need and we'll provide it." People got frustrated with him because they didn't know what they needed and they didn't know what he could do for them. He was asked to leave. He should have asked questions like: "What are the biggest problems you're facing? Where are your bottlenecks? What are your goals around expense reduction? What have you tried?"

In their desire to succeed in their new roles, it can be particularly difficult for new IT executives to let go of tactical activities such as writing code, configuring databases or upgrading networks. Why is rolling up one's sleeves to get something done and done well not necessarily a good idea for an executive?

You just don't have time to do everyone else's job. As an executive, you're supposed to focus on the big picture. You're operating at such a high level and you have access to people, perspectives, conversations and resources that your team doesn't. Your biggest contributions as a leader at this level are to share that perspective with your team so that they have a better, deeper understanding of the big picture and how they fit into it, and to knock down any barriers — whether they be political, organizational or financial — that might prevent them from accomplishing their agenda.

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