Beware of fatal pitfalls as a new CIO

Beware of fatal pitfalls as a new CIO

It’s your first day as the new CIO. You may know what probably needs to be done, but you don’t yet know what and who you don’t know.

It’s your first day as the new CIO. You may know what probably needs to be done, but you don't yet know what and who you don’t know. You’re excited to be here, even if this is your third or 10th CIO role. Pumped up and smiling, you’re eager to do right in this complex demanding job.

By the end of your first day, you’ll have a fairly good feel for what you’ve walked into. You’ll start to know the culture by the way people greet you, the tone and orchestration of the day.

Did you walk through with a human or digital guide? Did you learn much more than you expected? Did you meet at least one person you think you can trust? Was the team prepared to help you succeed in the role? Well, you had an ideal first day.

More common though is a first day full of blank spaces. Where you’re advised to read something — a pile of somethings — in your digital or analogue in-tray. A day that may be punctuated by surprises: “They didn’t tell me that before I took this job!”

A day where one or more of the following five common, but potentially dangerous and distracting, pitfalls opens up in front of you. While you may be able to avoid some, others are beyond your control.

The good news is that these pitfalls have been experienced and managed over and over in the life of the serial CIO … they just don’t talk about it much.

1. Redirect ego into efficacy

You may feel the urgent need to establish yourself and your credibility. While you’ve proven yourself to the selectors, you’re usually an unknown quantity to everyone else: your team, stakeholders, peers and vendors.

Step slowly through the familiarisation process of transition with confidence, but with a contained ego and minimal bravado. Even if you’ve a flawless track record across your career to date, re-establish your brand and value proposition sensitively from scratch in every new role you take.

One of the simplest mistakes you could make is letting your ego run ahead of proving your efficacy, by indulging in self-aggrandisement about what you achieved in previous roles or organisations.

2. Hey, I’m on your side

You may not be aware that one or more of the inherited team of direct reports, peers or stakeholders applied for the role — or even acted as interim CIO — but failed to be appointed. Those applicants are probably disappointed, perhaps hurt and resentful. They may think you don’t deserve the job. It’s a very common situation.

Pay immediate extra attention to thwarted applicants for your role. Mitigate the risk of any festering resentment potentially undermining your future effectiveness.

Convert them to loyal, trusted team members, or you may need to help them find a satisfactory role elsewhere. The reality is that they often move on anyway, their skills and experience lost to the organisation.

3. Look before you leap

Poor early actions have brought down many a new CIO. It might be stopping or starting a big, visible initiative. Or replacing key people during transition before the root cause of problems, true sources of capability and any better, alternate solutions are clear.

A critical, early error of judgement will prove more costly and visible than a similar misstep made later in your tenure, souring your nascent reputation and slowing the transitional path to efficacy.

In the long term, unless a serious crisis is unfolding, a few more weeks won’t make a significant difference, while acting too soon without adequate insight may cause lasting damage requiring rework, redesign or repair.

4. Hold your fire

New CIOs often fall into the trap of letting slip early criticisms of the previous CIO. The effect isn’t constructive, as the IT team and others may feel that they’re also casting criticism at them.

Avoid criticising the situation you’ve inherited, or you risk alienating your new team, just at the very time when you need them to tentatively trust you and evolve into your loyal supporters. If you feel the urge to criticise, do it subtly, judiciously early in the tenure.

Be assured that your beginner’s mind and critique as new CIO are highly valued, but hold your fire for maximum accuracy and impact when you’re confident you can initiate material improvement.

5. Find wise counsel

You may want to be open and trusting as the new CIO. Early on, however, you may trust the wrong people to give the right political advice. This could lead you to make grave missteps, running up against the new organisation's culture, norms and policies. This can quickly turn potential supporters into early doubters.

Before you start, assemble a small, trusted group of counsellors, drawn from people who know you well, experts in your industry and powerful people in your new organisation invested in your success.

You don’t need your wise counsellors to stroke your ego; rather to take an objective perspective, look out for pitfalls you may not see coming and to care enough to help you develop leadership skills, professional strengths, character and ethos, and, ultimately, your professional brand.

Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she has served as a CIO in global enterprises, held VP and GM roles in consulting and technology firms, worked as a hands-on enterprise agile coach, an innovation lead and a digital transformation director. Jenny will be presenting at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast, from 29 October-1 November 2018.

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