by Susan Cramm

The New CIO Mantra: Shut Up and Listen

Mar 15, 20027 mins

The rookie executive who walks in to a new job spouting off opinions about what’s wrong has the political equivalent of spinach in his teeth.

For the next three months, keep your mouth shut and don’t do anything.

This advice was given to me on the first day I worked as a CIO. It sounds simplistic, but it’s great advice for new CIOs or experienced CIOs who have just joined a company. The underlying premise is sound: You can do more harm than good during your first 100 days on the job by making decisions without the necessary facts and relationships.

The rookie executive who walks in to a new job spouting off opinions about what’s wrong has the political equivalent of spinach in his teeth. By the time somebody tells him to shut up, listen and learn, he is facing a major deficit in the credibility bank.

This profile is pretty black and white?none of us would commit this type of faux pas, would we? Well, in real life there are a lot more shades of gray. Here are some true examples of smart people who did some stupid things.

  • To meet an HR deadline, the CIO of a financial services company hustled to give performance reviews to the employees he had inherited. He worked hard to collect 360-degree feedback, but he was unable to achieve the ultimate goals of the reviews—namely, agreement on future performance expectations and development plans—because he could not analyze and convey the information in a way that was credible to his staff.
  • A CIO new to another financial services company fell into the trap of determining the rollout strategy for software with a spotty track record even though she lacked the appropriate information. As a result, she is being held responsible for implementation problems that were not created by her but that she had allowed to continue.
  • A retail industry CIO pushed the “reorg” button too early. He felt the need to make hard decisions when head counts were doled out to avoid losing out in the budgeting process. A subsequent reorganization was necessary, which he had to sell to a much more skeptical audience.
  • A CIO of a transportation company listened well to his clients but forgot to spend time to get to know his staff. When he started to roll out his leadership agenda, he was stopped dead in his tracks by an organization that wasn’t on board.

All these miscues have a common ingredient: CIOs who stopped listening too soon because they felt forced to take some action. Forced because they wanted to fix what seemed (to them) so obviously wrong, to make a quick impact, to meet a schedule or to avoid disappointing an important client.

Look Before You Leap

Those CIOs forgot the truism that ideas are cheap?the hard part is delivering results. Don’t make commitments that your organization cannot keep. Just because something is screwed up doesn’t mean you can fix it or fix it quickly. One of my favorite expressions is “Most organizations have the IT capability they deserve.” Understand that the state of IT in your company is the way it is for good reason. If something is obviously wrong, try to figure out why the organization has ignored fixing it and what you can realistically do to counter that.

A lot of decisions can be deferred or made in stages. For example, the new CIO of Dell Computer knew that SAP would not work for his organization, but he had no idea what would work. He asked for and got three months to formulate a new recommendation and plan. Don’t be forced into making decisions for which you don’t have the necessary information or insight. If a project is headed for disaster but you don’t know what to recommend in its place, share the information that you have and ask for time to develop a new action plan. If performance reviews are due, ask for an extension. If next year’s budgets need to be finalized, ask for a reasonable dollar amount and plan for a review in six months.

Once you’ve gained the time necessary to listen, what is it that you need to learn during your first 100 days? You should be gathering information and building the relationships necessary to establish your IT leadership agenda. That includes an assessment of IT effectiveness, your vision for IT, key strategies and priorities for the next six to 12 months, a definition of IT performance metrics, and current baseline measurements. To develop your leadership agenda, you need to gather the right information. Start by asking the following questions.

n What’s the state of the business? Where is the company’s money made and spent? What is the business vision and strategy? How is performance measured, and who is accountable? What is the industry value chain and your company’s relative competitiveness?

How credible is IT? What value has IT delivered in the past? How are IT decisions made? What is the value of the current project portfolio? What are IT’s greatest successes and failures? What is the likelihood of delivering current project commitments? Can IT deliver high-quality operational services at reasonable costs? Who are the stars of the organization and are they in positions of influence?

What is your IT architecture? How well is the company’s value chain supported by IT? What capabilities exist relative to the industry? How appropriate is the underlying technology? Are standards defined and adhered to?

Run with the Right Crowd

Those are the right questions to ask in your first 100 days; to get the right answers, you need to hang out with the right people. They include your peers, your staff, consultants and vendors, and the front line. Getting to know other executives might seem obvious, yet it surprises me how many new CIOs don’t understand that peer relationships are critical to their success. Getting to know your staff is also crucial. Equally important is that they get to know you. During the first 100 days, your staff interactions should be focused on both gathering data, and building trust and faith in your leadership. Consultants and vendors can sometimes be a very good resource to help you assess your systems and organization against industry and IT best practices.

Last but far from least, you need to get to know the front line. The front line is the employees in your organization who interact with the consumer. The front line is where IT value resides. Understand how to improve the interactions with your consumers so that you can identify the foundation of your IT strategy.

A lot of my clients ask me if they’ll have a honeymoon period when starting a new position. I always tell them no. They must focus immediately on building relationships, understanding the business and delivering a few quick wins. CIOs who can do those things will get credit for a great start. In most cases, three months is a reasonable ramp-up period, and six months is way too long.

At the end of your first 100 days, you should be able to articulate your agenda, and you should have the right people lined up to help you make it happen. You can accomplish those tasks only by closing your mouth and opening your ears. If your tendency—like most people—is to walk around with spinach in your teeth, remind yourself of the Shut Up and Listen mantra by placing some toothpicks on your desk.