by Clint Boulton

New CIO? Your transition playbook in 10 (not-so-easy) steps

Sep 05, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

What you accomplish in the first six months of taking over an IT leadership role is critical. The following 10 steps will help you navigate the rocky transition, get your IT house in order and set a clear path toward a strong strategic future.

A running joke among CIOs is that the acronym for their role stands for “Career Is Over,” a nod to the fact that the average tenure for a technology leader runs about four years. Evolving business needs and dissatisfaction with IT leadership suggest that timeline won’t change anytime soon.

CIOs joining new companies face a number of obstacles. Technology’s outsized role in driving businesses means many CIOs find themselves in the difficult position of using technology to both run the business and accelerate business growth, says Khalid Kark, research director of Deloitte’s CIO program. “Companies are not looking for [just] technology leaders,” Kark says. “They’re looking for inspirational business leaders that can lead and inspire the IT organization and develop a culture of high-performing talent.”

Transitions are particularly tough because business stakeholders expect new CIOs to dive right into business strategy, Kark says, when the reality is that they must often spend months getting their IT house in order. Moreover, some business stakeholders take longer to fill vacant CIO positions because they want to make sure candidates fit snugly within the company’s culture, Kark says. Adobe Systems, for example, took seven months to fill its CIO position, requiring CIO Cynthia Stoddard to remake IT’s identity.

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There is no one-size-fits-all playbook for CIO transitions. But new research from Deloitte, which has helped roughly 200 CIOs slide into new roles over the past five years, offers the following tips for IT leaders making this crucial transition.

1. Be scrupulous with your time

Level set, decide on initial priorities and recalibrate business expectations. Just know you have very little time to get your house in order when you join a new company, so what you do in the first six to nine months is absolutely critical. “At the end of 6 months you’re expected to deliver a change agenda, and if you haven’t built it by then you’re in trouble and it sets you up for failure because expectations they have coming in are very high,” Kark says.

2. Huddle with your team

Transitions are fraught with uncertainty so you’re bound to encounter some operational paralysis. Explain your strategic vision to key, high-performing staff members. Try to divine whether they’re onboard with your plan; tough decisions may have to be made later.

3. Talent appraisal, house cleaning and acquisition

Take stock of your talent, deciding whether key team members are the right ones for the culture you aim to instantiate. If you find yourself spending too much time on execution, you may have to reconfigure your team. Realign staffers, add new talent and integrate your teams to eliminate siloed “centers of excellence.”

4. Identify trusted lieutenants

Reorganizing your leadership teams can inspire fresh thinking, and reset performance expectations.Moreover, if your IT leaders have vied for your job before you arrived you may need to replace them or run the risk of butting heads. You can’t have your staff undermining you.

5. Get on board with the business

When IT was an island unto itself, what business leaders thought of your department may not have been a big deal. This is no longer the case; meet with key business stakeholders to learn about their concerns and challenges and address them. Honoring commitments and cultivating empathy for business stakeholders could go a long way and pay dividends with key partnerships down the road. “Being able to understand how you engage with different business stakeholders becomes much more important than having technical competence,” Kark says.

6. Connect with customers, partners and suppliers

Remember when your time was once consumed by back-office functions? In the digital era, you find yourselves more focused on customer-facing objectives. Connecting with the rest of the constituents in the value chain signals that you’re more than simply an enabler of the business. It will also help you properly assess technology’s role in delivering value. “There wasn’t an expectation that you’d be outward-facing five to eight years ago but now there is a pressure to understand the dynamics of the market your operating in,” Kark says.

7. Pick the low-hanging fruit

Demonstrating your competency as an IT leader can help you quickly gain trust. For example, Kark says one CIO client set up a new enterprise-wide wireless network in a few months, solving connectivity problems that had long frustrated employees.

8. Get some quick wins on the board

A new wireless network is nice but it will only buy you so much goodwill. Move the needle by tackling failing IT systems and stalled projects with high visibility among business stakeholders. Address postponement of architectural decisions or large expenditures weighing on the company. “You have to keep your head down and make sure that basic things are running effectively and efficiently and have the right people in the right places,” Kark says.

9. Prioritize IT demand and supply

Use these early efforts to assess your IT project backlog and prioritize next steps. Figure out your sourcing needs. Will the solution be delivered better on-premises or via cloud services? Work with business partners to instantiate a governance process for aligning project delivery with business needs. Two weeks into a new role, one CIO Kark spoke with discovered 1,300 IT projects, most of them late or over budget. That’s a recipe for “catastrophic failure” in IT, Kark says.

10. Strengthen the foundation and tweak expectations

Business leaders want their new CIOs to revamp IT culture and revitalize talent en route to focusing on strategy, Kark says. But you may soon find yourself blocking-and-tackling to mend broken IT.

One global retailer hired its new CIO to revitalize the staff and craft a new strategic vision for IT. However, just a few days into the CIO’s tenure massive outages in the company’s point-of-sale system wreaked havoc on the business. Kark says it’s not uncommon for some CIOs to work 70 hours a week for six months straight to get their house in order. Reduce the amount of time fixing problems by identifying key talent to assume responsibility in your stead. That will free you up to slide into strategy more quickly.

The bottom line

Ultimately, companies want a CIO who can lead, identify and groom top talent, and drive the digital strategy. They often need to be CIOs, COOs and CDOs rolled into one role. “Tech expertise is table stakes,” Kark says. “Really what companies are looking for is right cultural fit to drive change through an inspirational leader.”