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The new CIO playbook: 7 tips for success from day one

Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to CIO! Hopefully, you are well prepared for to succeed in making the leap, ready to lead your team, gain the trust of your peers, represent the IT team effectively to upper management, and be a star player at the next board meeting.

None of this is easy, though. And while all the mentoring and coaching you have received along the way can help, not every IT leader knows where to begin when taking the helm. By way of offering a playbook for new CIOs, I asked veteran CIOs and tech leads for advice on how to get this right from day one. Their advice might also help improve your chances of getting that promotion to CIO — if you aren’t quite there yet.

If there is a key to unlocking this next level of your career — aside from experience and a deep knowledge of technology — it might be summed up with a single word: “Listen,” says Leon Roberge, CIO at Toshiba America Business Solutions and Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. “I’ve seen a lot of management that doesn’t listen,” he says. “They try to dictate.”

If you listen — to your direct reports, your peers, your company’s business leaders, the CEO, and the board — you will learn the key facets necessary for a successful start in the CIO role: what your team needs, what the issues are, how technology can help further business initiatives, and what the board is willing to pay for.

1. Take a listening tour

Listening is so important to making the transition to IT chief that Liz Ebert, CIO advisory partner at Infosys Consulting, thinks the first thing you should do is go on a listening tour. In the old days, this might have meant wandering the office and asking everyone what’s working, what’s not, and what people would like to see change. You might go so far as to travel to meet with your peers in other parts of the company, other leaders, the CEO, and, when possible, members of the board.

“These days it’s easier. You can just line up virtual conversations,” Ebert says. The goal of a listening tour is to understand how the technology you manage works from the point of view of the people implementing and using it. “It’s an effort to understand the differences in the business as you go across regions, manufacturing plants, or roles,” she says. “I’m working with the CTO of a retail client, for example. This is the first time he’s worked retail, so he is planning to work in the store.”

A listening tour — and “ride-alongs,” in which IT leaders go into the field to experience how employees work — helps you understand the business issues technology is meant to solve. “When you’re a CIO, you need to see where the rubber meets the road. So, if you’re running, say, a big SAP implementation, go into the plant or the accounting department, and watch the systems in action to get a sense of what has been successful and what didn’t turn out as anticipated,” Ebert says.

2. Go to school on the business

It’s possible that, up to now, your focus has been solely on technology. One of the big differentiators between working on an IT team, even in a leadership role, and being CIO is that you will need to understand how technology fits into the larger business goals of the company. You will need to be a technology translator and advocate for the CEO, business leadership, and board. For that, you have to understand the business first.

“We can come up with creative technical solutions,” says Roberge. “We know you need an email system, a CRM system, and an ERP. But how does the business want to use those tools? How is the sales guy going sell product and be able to get a quote out, get the tax requirements, things like that?”

Business leaders are unlikely to understand technology the way you do. So, you must understand the business in order to help the other business units, the CEO, and the board understand how technology can fit into their goals. 

“As technology experts, we know our technology extremely well,” says Roberge. “But there may be a business case that says this needs to go a different direction. Listen a little bit. Understand why the business thinks it wants to head that way.”

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3. Become an advocate for your new reports

Getting promoted into a leadership role can potentially create awkwardness as you go from being part of a team to captaining that team. But, according to Kirby Frugia, senior vice president of engineering at MURAL, this transition is your first leadership opportunity.

“You have to establish trust,” he says. “When you get into that new role, focus on really listening to those folks. What concerns do they have? They might be worried your relationship is changing but you can show them that you are now their advocate.”

When you worked together as peers, you were facing the same challenges together. “Now you might tackle one or two of the easy ones,” says Frugia. “Look for some quick wins. Look for things you know the team has struggled with and, now that you’re in a position to help, dive in and do it. Pick something that maybe takes a little bit of effort but is something you know you can pull off. Something that directly benefits the people in that team, so they start to see you in a different light, as their advocate.”

4. Address potential resentments from rivals

If you were promoted to lead a team and someone on that team also sought your new role, it can be particularly challenging to gain that person’s trust. “When I joined a company, there was somebody on my team who had wanted the role I got,” says Frugia. “Luckily, they were straightforward with me about it. Bringing it to the surface allowed me to tackle it head on.”

The first step here is to identify why that person was seeking a promotion and, if possible, address some of those needs. “Was it that they wanted a pay raise?” asks Frugia. “Or did they want to develop their leadership skills and be in a position with greater impact?”

Only by knowing their motives can you address this delicate situation. Ignoring it and hoping things will right themselves will likely make things worse. “Think in terms of how you might be able to support them with their goals,” he says. If they see you not as their competition but as someone who is in their court, things are more likely to go well. If they see you as a rival, they might feel the need to undermine your authority.

“I’d focus on how I can be their advocate,” he says. “How can I help them through it? It’s okay if they’re not happy. You can’t make them happy about the fact that they didn’t get a role they wanted. But you can understand the cause of their unhappiness. You can help them achieve something they’re looking to achieve. If they’re demonstrating behaviors that are not healthy to you or the team, address that head-on. The worst thing you can do is let it get toxic or let it simmer or not acknowledge that this exists at all.”

5. Know your audience when you address the board

“The ability to communicate technology strategy, priorities, trade-offs, and investments in a way that can be clearly understood by a non-technical audience makes a CIO really stand out in the board room,” says Lily Cheng, founder of Hubel Labs. Cheng serves on the board of six companies and has been on the receiving end of numerous good and bad CIO presentations at the board level. You are probably asking the board for approval for expenditures. They will not understand you if you speak in acronyms and tech jargon. If you are a translator, a tech whisperer for them, though, you will do well.

Keep your audience — their understanding of and interest in technology — in mind as well as your goal for this conversation as you present your request.

“The board cares if the right resources are allocated to technology and whether those resources are being effectively deployed to meet the strategic goals of the business, the existence of tech debt and the extent to which it is slowing the company down, and how technological capability is measured and whether it offers a sustainable competitive advantage in the industry,” explains Cheng. “The board cares about governance processes and the proactive management of tech-related risks. Being able to elevate the conversation to a strategic level separates a C-suite leader from an executor.”

If you show up ready to impress with your tech expertise without reading the room, this conversation will be rough.

“I’ve been in too many board meetings,” says Cheng, “where the CIO presents a laundry list of initiatives from the perspective of a technologist — from ‘adopting microservices architecture’ to ‘moving to the cloud’ to ‘deploying CI/CD’ — only to see board members eyes glaze over at the jargon.”

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6. Help everyone understand the challenges of the IT talent shortage

The talent shortage is real. And it can limit what you can accomplish and what the management team should expect from your technology team. “The single biggest challenge we hear when speaking with CIOs is that the battle for talent in today’s market is fierce,” explains Jonathan Seelig, co-founder and executive chairman of Ridge. “Communicate that honestly with your fellow C-suite executives, the CEO, and with direct reports,” he says. “All the CIO’s planning needs to be done with a realistic assessment of the talent market.”

Just as you must consider the business goals when speaking to the board, you have to consider what is possible — with the talent you have and can get — when planning technology initiatives.

“DevOps, cloud architects, integration engineers, and security practitioners are hard to hire and harder to maintain,” says Seelig. “We have seen CIOs come into organizations hell-bent on using particular tools, cloud service providers, or technologies, only to find the in-house talent is not familiar with these technologies.”

Seelig suggests that you stick with industry standards and protocols to create systems that are sustainable. “By choosing architectures that comply with industry standards and protocols, you give yourself the most flexibility.”

7. Focus on the customer

One way of aligning your thinking with the rest of the company and the business goals, says Eddy Wagoner, digital CIO at JLL, is to shift your focus to the customer and how your technology will ultimately impact them.

“Historically, IT was part of the back office,” Wagoner says. “We took orders from the businesspeople. Here, at JLL, we thought of our customer as the real estate people who dealt with the customers.”

But Wagoner has lately become an advocate of encouraging IT to shift its understanding of “customer” to the actual customer of the business. That mindset shift helps align your thinking and goals with those of other leaders in the company so IT can collaborate and infuse technology into decisions earlier in the process.

“Technology is the value I bring to the business,” he explains. “Putting the focus on the customer obsession that we all have — whether we’re in business, finance, or IT — goes a long way toward bringing people to the table around a common challenge, a common theme. It creates relationships and opportunities where we can have conversations, even about technology, that are more collaborative.”

This simple change in focus, he says, helps business leaders also understand the need for technology.

“We can change the conversation to help business leaders understand that having an effective cybersecurity policy and the right people in place should be a part of our overall business culture,” Wagoner says. “It changes the conversation from head-butting — this is a necessary evil, you’re spending money — to helping business leaders understand that technology, especially security, can increase the speed of our delivery, enable revenue growth, and create business resiliency.”

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