Stepping up to CIO

Jerry Bartlett has had his eyes on the top IT spot for years. He wanted the job, he says, “for the span of influence I can have. That’s what drives me; that’s always what has driven me: to have as broad an impact as possible.”

It’s that expanded influence — and the responsibility that goes with it — that makes the chief IT position fundamentally different from other senior-level jobs, says Bartlett, who was promoted last year from vice-president of application development and quality assurance to CIO at TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. in Omaha, Neb.

Getting to the CIO post requires years of hard work, but that’s only the beginning. As Kevin L. Shearan, CIO at Mellon Financial Corp., puts it, “I was a supporting lieutenant. Now I’m the accountable exec.”

But while most new CIOs are ready for increased responsibility and accountability, some might not be as prepared for the transition from their old jobs to the role of chief information officer. Several CIOs promoted in the past year recently shared their thoughts on how to move into the top spot gracefully.

Bob Mitchell moved up from his job as senior director of strategic business analysis and strategic business implementation to group vice-president of operations and CIO at GTSI Corp. just as the Chantilly, Va.-based company entered crisis mode because of a troubled ERP implementation.

Mitchell went to work immediately. He set up meetings with managers, peers and other stakeholders to hear their views on IT, the ERP project and what he should do next.

He developed a plan detailing key issues, highlighting top priorities and acknowledging the next 15 or so concerns. And he took actions that had immediate paybacks. For example, during the first 90 days of the ERP implementation, IT had a constant backlog of 300 urgent tickets — that is, requests for service on problems so critical that they should have been addressed within 24 hours. To alleviate the situation, he ramped up the group handling those tickets from five people to 11.

Newly promoted CIOs say it’s essential to take charge and establish your own vision for your IT department within the first few months of taking the reins. But that’s not enough; they say it’s equally crucial to back your vision with actions that get noticed.

In March, Puneet Bhasin moved from senior vice-president of global technology at Maynard, Mass.-based Monster Worldwide Inc. to CIO for North America. Part of his vision for his IT department is a high level of service to its customers.

So in advance of a major software release this summer, he initiated conversations with other Monster executives about how the release would proceed, giving them candid details about when it would happen, what problems were expected and how they would be handled. After the release, he solicited their feedback about the process and the new application to learn from the experience.

“Your actions speak for themselves,” Bhasin says. “It’s practicing what you preach.” But Mitchell cautions against doing too much too fast. “If you’re going to be a leader, overly exerting your new position is not the way,” he says. “Some people feel such an angst around those first 90 days that they jump to conclusions.”

He advises against issuing edicts as a way to show strength. “In no way [should you] go in and declare, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’” Mitchell says.

To avoid that, he worked to establish a team environment, where he and his staff collaborate to make the best decisions.

Shearan didn’t plan an all-out shake-up for the IT department when he was promoted from executive vice-present of technology to executive vice-president and CIO at Pittsburgh-based Mellon Financial. But he did make management changes to align his team with his way of working.

For instance, Shearan scrapped his predecessor’s review process for major projects. The former process involved a lot of people sharing ideas in a roundtable format that he says just wasn’t his style. “My belief is that people get more value out of an in-depth discussion with an executive [than] a brief overview,” he explains, adding that the IT department now has regular, in-depth reviews instead of the broader forums.

Shearan also reviewed his management team and their duties, going several levels deep. It was useful to do this around the time of employee goal-setting, he says.

He didn’t make personnel changes among his direct reports, but he did bring in fresh blood at the next level. “The perspective was, ‘Is this my team, and will they be supportive?’” Shearan says.

Brad H. Friedman, who this spring moved from vice-president of IT to CIO at Burlington, N.J.-based Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., recently met with his developer group for lunch. The big item on the agenda? Getting to know one another better.

Though Friedman already knows many of his staff members, he doesn’t know all 250 and has lost touch with some over the years. Moreover, he says, these informal meetings allow for a casual yet important bonding that doesn’t happen every day. “Everybody is working so diligently to get their jobs done that it’s next to impossible to have that kind of interaction,” Friedman says.

Such meetings are important because they “open the door” for honest communication with his staffers “so they feel they can express their opinions and that their opinions are valuable to me,” he says.

“I’m not the guru when it comes to networking or database design, but if I have people with that expertise and there’s a trust between us, that makes for a stronger organization all together,” he adds.


CIOs promoted from within have the advantage of already knowing their colleagues, but Shearan didn’t assume that he knew all he needed to know about his new peers’ work and how IT could support it. He wanted to be sure he understood their priorities and figure out how he could address them as the new leader at the helm.

“I sat down with these guys on a number of occasions to really get at what is important to them that might have been put on a shelf,” Shearan says. He also asked if they felt there were technology initiatives that didn’t add value.

“It was important to them, and having those conversations gave these guys the opportunity to just open up,” he explains.

Likewise, Shearan built new top-level relationships with vendors that were working with his company. As CIO, he says, “I found I had access to the vendor executives. They are a fabulous resource.”

One meet-and-greet with a vendor executive led to a joint project to work on a new research capability, he says.

Newly named CIOs acknowledge that the promotion creates new dynamics in the office: Peers become subordinates; superiors become peers.

“There’s the potential for discomfort. But my rule of thumb was that I will treat [my employees] the way I want my boss to treat me,” Bartlett says, and that’s with respect and acknowledgement for a job well done.

Bartlett acknowledged early that the roles had changed, and he spelled out his expectations of his staff.

“One of my first conversations with my direct reports was a request: ‘Despite the fact that I’m now your boss, I need you to be open and honest with me when there are things I can do for you or things you think I could do differently.’

And the other was a statement: ‘Being consistent with my principles of open and honest communication, I’m going to tell you when you need to do something differently,’” he says.

Dealing with superiors-turned-peers also presents challenges, which is why Bartlett and others say it’s best to focus on building relationships with colleagues sooner rather than later.

When Shearan was promoted, he made a list of people with whom he needed to spend time to better understand their roles in the business.

It’s never too early to lay the groundwork for a move up. Bartlett says he started preparing for the CIO job years ago. “I explicitly and deliberately created a development plan,” he says. He sought feedback from other executives, emulated executive behaviours he admired and “provided clear value” in the jobs he held on his way up.

He even sought the help of his predecessor, at one point asking him, “If you were going to go be a CEO somewhere, what would my performance need to be for you to want me to come with you to be your CIO?”

Bartlett says his predecessor, now the company’s chief operating officer, assigned him corporate-wide initiatives and responsibilities that brought him into the so-called C-suite. In short, Bartlett says, his boss was instrumental in “helping me have the opportunities to develop the skills that made me the clear choice for CIO.”


It really is lonely at the top

CIO Jerry Bartlett says one of the hardest things about moving up was seeing his circle of confidants shrink at the same time his responsibilities grew.

“You’ve got to sort through a lot more, either by yourself or with just one or two other folks,” he says, explaining that CIOs and other executives often deal with issues whose details can’t be disclosed or shared with colleagues who might offer insight.

It’s true, he says: It’s a bit lonely at the top. But Bartlett, who is CIO at TD Ameritrade, found a way to counteract some of that by cultivating relationships with new peers with whom he can discuss ideas, seek insight on tough situations or just vent.

Kathy Hill agrees. “You have to have a support network. It’s important not to try to do it by yourself. You don’t have to have all the answers,” says Hill, a professional coach in career and life transitions at Hill Consulting Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.

She says that until promoted executives develop a network, they can find the support they need by hiring a coach or seeking advice from others who have been in similar situations.

She also suggests that they join or create a “mastermind group,” a small group of executives in the organization at the same professional level who meet in person or on the phone weekly to share challenges and solutions.

Regardless of what you call this group, she says, “almost every successful person has been part of one.”

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