Ten Survival Tactics for Your First Year on the Job

While there is considerable debate about the exact shelf-life of CIOs, one thing is certain: It isn’t long. Getting a CIO job is tough enough, but holding onto it can be even tougher. Whether you’ve just landed your first-ever CIO gig or you’re a seasoned CIO who has moved to a new company, your first-year performance says a lot about the likely length (or brevity) of your stay and the impact you’ll have in year two.

Do you hit the ground blazing or take little steps? Do you make your entrance with a hatchet or a carrot? Much depends on whether you’re inheriting a high-performance organization or turning around something messy. But regardless of your unique situation, there are a number of steps you can take to make the first year a great one. I spoke to five CIOs, all of whom have made it well past their first year, about their own initial experiences and what they learned from them. They offer advice not only on how to survive year one, but on how to position yourself to move mountains in year two.

  1. Establish your own performance measures. During your first three months on the job, if not earlier, you should establish with your manager (who ideally is the CEO) your own performance measures. “CIOs are too often measured on uptime, disk utilization, visits to the website and other navel-gazing metrics,” says Gerry McCartney, assistant dean for technology at Purdue University’s Kranner School of Management. “Meeting these goals should merely get you in the game.” McCartney advises a CIO new to the job to establish performance metrics that are more relevant to the business. “What are the metrics that the CEO uses when presenting the company’s performance to the board?” he asks. “I would propose that a CIO have his or her own performance measures align with these.” Academic institutions use metrics like quality of incoming students and average salary of outgoing students, which are more relevant to McCartney’s own performance than service availability.
  2. First six months: Ease the easy pain. When Guido Sacchi began as CIO for CompuCredit in 2002, he ironed out a game plan for his first six months on the job: Leave the “big vision” on the back burner for a while and talk to customers about IT problems that are painful to the business, but easy to fix. At CompuCredit, the business complained that service interruption levels were too high, so Sacchi committed his first three months to solving the problem. “Give yourself a three to six month window to demonstrate real value right away,” says Sacchi. “Put a lot of emphasis on your efforts to eliminate the problem, and once you’ve done it, you’ve established some credibility.”
  3. Second six months: Set your agenda. Follow Sacchi’s plan and you may well win over the business with some quick wins, but that won’t last forever. You need to use this critical window to set and get buy-in for your overall vision. “If you’ve been successful in delivering on short-term projects (and if you haven’t, then find a new job),” says Sacchi, “you’re now in a great position to set your long-term agenda.” But be sure to sharpen your negotiating skills, he warns, and push hard for what you want. Faced with some heavy resistance from the business on shared services his first year, Sacchi now feels that he didn’t push hard enough and has paid for it. “Three years later, that mistake is still with me,” he says.
  4. Restructure the IT organization (no matter what). Most likely, you’ve been brought in to make change, so do it and do it quickly, says Rex Althoff, CIO of Federated Investors. “You’ve got to assess your staff and make major changes in the first six months, or you’re dead in year two,” he says. Not only is it easiest to make major changes when you’re new to the organization, but you need to satisfy your customers’ perception that you’re going to change the status quo. “Bringing in a direct report or two from the outside will get some new blood into the organization and will set the company’s impression that you’re going to create fundamental change.”
  5. Change behaviors without asking permission. When Althoff became CIO in 1999, he found that employees were barely using the Internet, and the corporate intranet consisted of a lunch menu and an org chart. Rather than present his big vision of an “online company” and scare off change-resistant employees, he started small. “I decided to have everyone use the Web to update their own information,” says Althoff. “This eliminated a huge amount of paper in HR in the short term and was the first step in what would wind up as a major behavioral change for the company.” Whether it’s enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management or any other change to behaviors and business processes, a small subtle change that gets people going in the right direction without their really knowing it can be much more effective than a big bang approach.
  6. Track IT spend to EBITDA. “At the end of the day, it’s all about money,” says Eric Goldfarb, CIO of PRG Schultz International, a recovery audit services firm. “The goal of the CEO is to increase revenue, so you need to align IT to that goal.” One method Goldfarb suggests is to track overall IT spend to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) over the last five years, set the historical trend, and then set a goal to increase that ratio by 10 percent every year. “That would get the CEO’s attention,” he says.
  7. Go for the money. Now that you’ve set your IT spend to EBITDA ratio targets (or some other relevant metric), you need to find opportunities to make some decent money with little investment. “Of course this varies by business, but you can always put a little money into a cashflow management or sales force automation system,” says Goldfarb. “You’re looking for small doable projects that will have good payback in the first year: a high return on a low investment. Every company has a few opportunities like that.” During Goldfarb’s first year on the job in 2002, he and his team consolidated a number of data centers and pruned the number of systems and processes by 25 percent, significantly improving the cost structure of the company.
  8. Hit the helpdesk. “This is very tactical, but it has always worked for me,” says Goldfarb. “Jump to the helpdesk; it’s how the world views the IT department. Make sure those people are stellar; get them some customer services training and create a learning organization.” While helpdesk improvements are not going to bring you the revenue of other projects, they will improve the overall standing of your department.
  9. Hire your own finance manager. When Eric Bloom took over IT at Endo Pharmaceuticals, he saw that the company’s R&D division had hired its own finance manager. At first, Bloom saw the move as superfluous, figuring that he could manage the budget himself. However, he soon saw that the back and forth of budget negotiations was eating up a major amount of time—time much better spent leading IT. “Hiring someone in IT who can communicate with the finance department will eliminate 99 percent of your budget problems,” says Bloom. “Do it as early as you can during your first year and you’ll turn a perceived weakness into a strength. That’s a huge advantage.”
  10. Ask the business for advice (and write down what people say). That a new CIO should talk to the business is a given; what they should say is not. Bloom suggests that you ask your business peers for their thoughts on how to invest in IT. “Whether you listen or not is up to you,” says Bloom. “But not asking implies that you believe they have nothing to offer and builds a wall between you and the business.” When you ask their advice, remember what they say, because when you do act on their advice, “they’ll be your best friend forever,” says Bloom.

Martha Heller is the managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the Z Resource Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. She can be reached at 508-366-5800 x222 or mheller@zrgroup.com.

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