New and aspiring CIOs often ask how they can jump start their role. There was recently an interesting discussion on LinkedIn on the topic. It was started by a newly promoted CIO, with a lot of advice provided by many current and former CIOs. Some points raised in the discussion are worth sharing to help both CIOs and those who aspire to the role.
In his book The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins advises functional leaders who are moving to executive roles to “promote” themselves. This means stop thinking of yourself as a functional leader such as an applications or infrastructure manager. Instead, envisage yourself in a broader leadership role with different demands and expectations. As an executive, you are now part of the business leadership team, not just a technology leadership team.
Understand the business
Your new leadership role requires a sound understanding of the products, services and dynamics of the business. Unless you know how the business works, what customers are expecting and what the competition is doing, you are not going to be able to leverage the technology capabilities needed to achieve success. Learn from your C-level peers by visiting relevant branches, factories and call centres to learn more about the business. Take time to understand their organisational context, vision and goals, as well as IT’s capabilities and how they all relate.
Focus on a few things
As a new CIO there is a temptation to ‘transform’ IT. New CIOs often get into trouble by trying to solve every problem and please everyone right out of the gate. If there are service delivery issues, deal with them first and set realistic expectations with the management team. No one wants to talk strategy when basic IT functions aren’t working.
Understand what needs to be fixed. What are the biggest concerns of the CEO or your peers? Is service delivery satisfactory? Are projects delivering value? Does IT have credibility in the business?
Once you understand what needs to be fixed, create a three or six-month plan and share it with your boss to get buy-in. Demonstrate some quick wins, which will create positive momentum for your change agenda.
Create a shared agenda
Share your understanding of the business’s challenges and expectations with staff. What you know, they — within reason — should know. There should be no surprises. When your team has the same understanding as you, they are more likely to buy into the change agenda. When everyone is on the same page, achieving success is easier. Creating a shared agenda also builds trust between you and your team.
Clear and simple communications
A large part of any leadership role is communication. You are leading people who need to understand why they need to do things differently, where the business is going, IT’s plans and how they can contribute. Team members are not the only stakeholders with whom you need to communicate. Your business peers also want to know how you will support them and what they can expect from IT. Keep your communications simple and clear, avoid the urge to promise more than you can deliver, and manage their expectations.
Communication is an ongoing process. Try scheduling regular communications using different forums such as one-on-one, team meetings, e-mail, newsletters, dashboards, and town hall meetings. Remember, it’s not possible to over-communicate.
Challenge but support your team
Don’t make decisions for your team or do the job for them. Set high expectations for individuals, remove the barriers they face in doing their jobs, then step aside and allow them the freedom to work independently.
Listen to your team because they will have great ideas. Remain approachable because you are the new guy and you may not know exactly what your team does. Treat them with respect, support them and above all thank them for their effort even when they stumble. Forgive mistakes. Celebrate and reward success and punish incompetence. When your team expects you to make decisions, don’t dither. Consult and decide. If you make the wrong decision, adjust or refine your approach.
Involve C-level colleagues
Find time to meet your stakeholders. Learn everything you can from your C-level peers and involve them in the projects, activities and plans being formed by IT. Their buy-in will not only help projects move more smoothly, but also result in them being well-rounded.
A big complaint about IT is lack of transparency. Explore ways to share plans, performance and successes with peers and customers. Tailor reports so that they are relevant to colleagues.
Sharing information and involving your peers will help them become ‘informed buyers’ of technology. It will also lead to better IT/investment governance in the organisation and ultimately better decision-making.
Continually learning and updating your knowledge will engender more confidence. Use conferences, CIO forums and the media to improve your knowledge of the business, technology trends and to share your experiences. Vendors and business partners are a good source of information as they work with many different industry organisations. You can also learn quite a bit by sitting in the call centre or working on a cash register. What’s more, colleagues will have more respect for IT if you take the trouble to understand the work they do. Become a working manager who listens and rolls up sleeves with those in the trenches.
Create an IT portfolio
Creating an IT portfolio can be a fantastic tool for communicating value to senior executives — and you don’t need to spend a lot of money putting it together. A simple portfolio that shows the health and value of IT systems and assets can inform and educate others about the challenges IT faces. Similarly, a portfolio of projects can demonstrate where IT effort is directed and how it aligns with business strategy.
Network with other CIOs and liaise with various associations and local groups. People are typically happy to share information. No matter how big or small a given company, most deal with the same issues and have sought outside expertise.
Keep in mind the big picture. From time to time, step back from the daily grind to think about big picture strategy and adjust your actions accordingly.
There are also many good books worth reading, including The New CIO Leader, The Real Business of IT, The CIO Edge and for CIOs without an IT background, Adventures of an IT Leader.
Hemant Kogekar is the principal of Kogekar Consulting. He has previously held CIO/IT director positions with Suncorp, Citigroup and Franklins. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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