CIO

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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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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What's the most difficult aspect of transitioning from midlevel manager to executive?

You're always on stage. People throughout the organization are watching and they're forming assessments before they know anything about you personally. You need to be aware of the scrutiny you're under and very carefully manage people's perceptions by making good first impressions and by understanding your footprint, or sphere of influence, in the organization.

How can new executives go about understanding their footprint?

The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication wide open by being approachable. You want people to feel comfortable sharing ideas with you and giving you candid feedback. You need to make them feel that their input is welcome and supported.

Isn't it hard for executives to come off as approachable, especially toward front-line employees, given that executives speak differently, dress differently and hold more power and authority? How does an executive get around those differences?

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to enhance your approachability. You don't want to ask questions that lead to a yes or no response. Start questions with "what" as opposed to "how" or "did you". Ask folks on the front line: What do you see going on? What do you think we should do? What's new in your part of the business?

Take the time to talk with people about their interests and listen to the answer. Don't move on to the next thing in 30 seconds. Take three or five or six minutes to really have a conversation.

You write in your book that senior executives play on a bigger and broader field but with less information and control than they had as functional leaders. Why is that the case?

Executives have a larger span of control, but because their span is so broad, they literally can't control every single thing. Consequently, being an executive is really more about influence than it is about direct control. One of my professors in my student career was Richard Neustadt, who wrote a book back in the 1960s called Presidential Power. His point in that book is that everybody thinks the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world because of the military resources under his control. Neustadt argues that while there are certain things the President can order and command, he operates mostly by exerting influence on Congress and foreign leaders to do what he wants them to do. Executives in organizations operate the same way.

How does a new executive adapt to operating with less information and less control?

You have to have a strong team in place. Executives who don't are almost guaranteed to fail. In this environment your responsibilities are so broad. You're accountable for so many different results and to different stakeholder groups that care about those results. You need a team that you can depend on, whose judgment and experience you trust, and who will let you know when things aren't going well.

Operating as an executive takes you out of your comfort zone numerous times a day because you're never going to have 100 percent of the information you need [to make decisions]. In his autobiography, Colin Powell said that when he had between 40 percent and 70 percent of the information that he wanted, he made a decision. He realized that he wouldn't make any decisions if he waited for 100 percent of the information. The same is true in business. You've got to get comfortable using your judgment and your experience to form points of view on issues you may not feel you know enough about.

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How does becoming a CIO change the way one communicates?

CIOs are charged with influencing lots of different audiences. Those audiences could be board members, market analysts, other senior executives, customers, front-line employees and everyone in between. CIOs need to understand the objective they have with their communications and their audience. So they should customize their communications accordingly.

I encourage clients to ask themselves the following questions before delivering any important communication: What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want this person or audience to know? Why should they care about what I'm telling them, and how do I help them understand why they should care? What do I need them to think or do as a result of this communication?

Give an example of how a CIO's communications might change depending on the audience.

Let's take a re-engineering project. In speaking with board members and shareholders about it, you're going to focus on how the project will enhance the company's profitability. For front-line employees, you need to address how the project will affect their jobs. If you go to a town hall meeting and all you speak to your employees about is the money the company is going to save and the efficiencies it's going to gain as a result and you never explain what it means for them or ask them what they think, you're not going to connect. You're going to be another talking-head executive who doesn't have a lot of credibility on the front line.

Identifying what's important to different constituents and communicating with them about those topics will help you connect to them and boost your credibility.

What advice can you give to new CIOs about influencing others, particularly their executive level peers and the board?

Look for opportunities to create some small wins that solve a particular problem for line executives. The more long-standing and annoying the problem, the better. If you can fix something that people hate in three to six months, that's a credibility builder. You'll be seen as the person who came in, listened to them, and came up with a creative solution to the problem that's been bugging everyone for years. Then leverage that small win into credibility and influence when it comes to leading larger initiatives.

What to Pick Up and What to Let Go

Pick Up

  • Confidence in your abilities
  • Regular renewal of your energy and perspective
  • Custom-fitted communications
  • Team reliance
  • Defining what to do
  • Accountability for many results

Let Go

  • Doubt in how you contribute
  • Running flat out until you crash
  • One-size-fits-all communications
  • Self-reliance
  • Telling how to do it
  • Responsibility for a few results