Whether you’re a veteran CIO departing the company, or stepping into a new leadership role – seeing the IT flame change hands can be a nerve-wracking experience for both parties. And if done incorrectly, a handover can fail miserably.
Many IT leaders have had to get by without the guidance of a predecessor. One such CIO is Andrew Mitchell of law firm, Griffith Hack, who has been able to carry out his own formal handover by drawing from his knowledge of the biggest challenges and pitfalls for a newcomer.
The best advice he gives to departing CIOs? Don’t be afraid to hand over a mess.
“It’s always good when you’re departing to have fresh eyes on an issue,” Mitchell says. “As a departing CIO [it's important] to be very open and share your experience with technology, the team, the business. It's like in the workplace, you're always encouraging your team to share, and so they pass on their knowledge to others … Don’t be afraid to share the good and the bad.”
For newcomers walking into the thick of it, Mitchell says work on the challenge, rather than place blame.
“I’ve certainly walked into messes before but there's no point in pointing the finger at anybody because it's not necessarily the previous incumbent’s fault. It could be a mixture of things like maybe they didn’t have any money, and all the priorities were misaligned,” he says.
“Just focus on the task at hand and make sure that you are heading the direction the business wants you to.”
Tim Thurman, CIO for the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) says he has walked into a mess in the past. Even in a tight ship like the ASX, things are always messier than they seem.
“If you look at the ASX from the outside in, we’re a machine. We have awesome availability, we’re one of the few vertically integrated [organisations], so we do things very well and have done so for many years,” he says. “But if you’re in the exchange looking out, we put out fires every day.”
Griffith Hack's Mitchell advises that new CIOs shouldn't make sweeping technology changes without understanding how the business operates.
“If you just go in and implement technology solutions it's not going to solve the problems, you need to solve the business problem," he says. "I’m always of the philosophy that it’s' not technology that solves the problem, its people that solve the problem.”
People and culture
It's always difficult adjusting to a new culture, so a proper handover should involve making sure the new person is properly introduced to teams, and their role thoroughly defined.
"It’s challenging going into a new senior level IT role... the key thing is making sure the role is properly defined and communicated to the organisation, especially the teams that the CIO is responsible for," says Thurman.
When introducing the new CIO to the executive team and their own people, it's best not to overdo it when providing guidance to each individual, says Griffith Hack's Mitchell.
"It's more about giving them hints about people rather than telling them how certain individuals might behave in the workplace; really that’s for them to make up their own mind about, because people change," says Mitchell.
"The people piece gives them an understanding of the organisation and the people that they should reach out to, so it’s more important that they pick up that art quickly because the most crucial part is building those relationships as quickly as possible."
As each new incumbent brings their own unique leadership style, exiting CIOs should be prepared to offer guidance while also accepting a potential change of culture.
"I came into the CIO role [at the ASX] having been handed over from my predecessor who had been here for many years, and a big challenge I had was he had a very unique style at managing a group," says Thurman.
Thuman has around 200 staff working for him at the ASX and about 50 contractors. All these staff had to adjust to his leadership style after many years of working with his predecessor.
"My behaviour in the way I manage is very transparent and very open to getting ideas from the staff in general. So convincing 250 people that my style was a little different, a little proactive rather than reactive, was challenging."
Departing CIOs also need to ensure new incumbents become familiar with how to work with management and the board, and what to expect from them.
"Getting that support from peers at senior level is critical from day one because they’ll want to know whether you understand good business and understand what their limitations are in terms of what they do and what you need to do," says Thurman.
"At the end of the day you do run technology and you have to support those individuals, because they’re your clients."
Thurman and Mitchell agree that a good handover should usually last around two weeks, though it will always depend on the unique situation, the size of the organisation and how well the new CIO knows the business.
“When the old CIO was leaving, I had about a two-week handover, and I understood the architecture and technology,” says Thurman.
“I think if someone came from an investment bank into the ASX, you’d probably want a little more time just to make sure you understand the mission critical applications, availability, and expectations from our clients…I had little over a week to understand all of that which was long enough.”
Following this, it’s okay for new CIOs to take a little time to get to know the teams and understand the new environment and its expectations from an IT and business perspective.
“Whoever you're reporting to needs to give you that time because you need to get an understanding of where the business is heading, what are the priorities moving forward, what are the business pain points and how can IT can potentially assist in bridging that gap,” says Mitchell.
After the handover
Along with sharing experiences with current and past technology, the teams and the business goals, departing CIOs should be open to being contacted if the new CIO has additional questions.
"I’ve been in contact with the new CIO at my last workplace ... there were a couple of times they contacted me with questions around contracts so I could provide some insight," says Mitchell. "I don't want to be involved in any decision making, but just providing some background is good."
Thurman also agrees that remaining approachable in the weeks following a handover is a great way to ensure a seamless transition.
"When I’ve been exiting an organisation I’ve always had the opportunity to look at replacing myself with somebody I knew, and they would reach out to me after I left saying 'hey I have this problem, who do I talk to?'” says Thurman.
"I would keep an ongoing dialogue with these individuals for a few weeks or even months after I had left, and I think that’s quite critical."
Along with the list of tasks that CIOs need to complete before they pull the ejection handle, it’s good to remember that conducting an effective handover can make a huge difference to your professional brand.
“If you’re leaving on good terms, you’re leaving a positive legacy,” says Thurman. “So be co-operative, extend the courtesy of the call after it is required, and just make sure that when you leave, that you leave on good terms,” says Thurman.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.