Your first 90 days on the job

The first days at a new job are nerve-wracking for anyone. But for the high-expectation position of CIO, the first days and weeks are often seen as a litmus test, a chance to make or break your reputation as a leader of business, technology and people. The idea of compiling a set of best practices to orient CIOs through their first 90 days germinated with a small group of Canadian CIO Executive Council members. The larger Council membership embraced the idea and nearly 70 CIOs from around the world contributed to the Council report A Running Start: Success in your First 90 Days on the Job.

Eldon Amoroso, CIO at London Police Services in Ontario, and project steering committee member, was internally promoted to CIO three years ago and wishes he knew then what he knows now. “Sharing what we’ve all learned will give new CIOs a good framework to organize their first few months and know what they should focus on,” says Amoroso. Fellow steering committee member Ted Maulucci, CIO at Tridel Corp., adds, “You can’t do it all in the first three months, but you can definitely start targeting different areas, especially building strong relationships.”

Below, CIO Executive Council members journey back to their own first 90 days and share their most critical lessons.

You’re the new CIO on the block – whether you’ve come from a different company or have been promoted – so relationship building with your fellow senior execs should be top on your list in these crucial first weeks. “Right when I became CIO, I set up 45-minute appointments with every senior officer in the company,” recalls Michael Abbene, who was promoted to CIO of Arch Coal in July 2005. When Ron Kifer started his job last year as group vice president and CIO at $9 billion Applied Materials, he wrote customized business relationship plans for each business leader – nine in all, with the goal of making each early interaction with them a valuable one. He mapped out specific ways to do this ranging from including specific business execs in his IT team meetings to taking certain business leaders out to dinner.

Relationship-building also extends to your new team. Vicki Petit, who was promoted to vice president of information services at $300 million furniture manufacturer KI in 1999, still remembers how hard it was to make the transition from being an IT peer to being the one in charge. “I didn’t know the specifics of what each of my team members had accomplished, and it took meeting with them to broaden my perspective of their talents,” says Petit. First-time CIO Kristen Blum is just coming off her first 90 days after being hired by retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. “I came into the job and made sure everyone knew my focus was on the people – you can’t succeed without a strong team. I met with all of my direct reports, their direct reports, as many people as I could!” says Blum.

Although new CIOs feel pressure to accomplish big things quickly, the best thing you can do in your first 90 days is take your time when it comes to big moves. Maulucci has spent his entire career at the family-owned construction company Tridel, and became CIO five years ago. “Even though I already knew the team and had the respect in place, I didn’t rush into anything when I first became CIO,” he recalls. “I had witnessed other colleagues step into senior roles and rush decision-making to make a name for themselves. It didn’t work, and I took that to heart.” Blum agrees. “For me, one month was the right amount of time that I needed to really sit back, get immersed in the culture and just take it all in. After that, it was time to get to work,” she says.

Petit was one CIO who made a big move too soon – she changed the function’s organizational structure – and regretted it. “I did it too quickly without taking the time to see what the existing staff could accomplish in their original functions. It didn’t work, and nine months after I did it, I went back to the original org structure,” says Petit.

Delivering small, quick-wins is a safer way to make a positive impression in the short-term. In his 90-day strategic plan, Kifer made it a point to include quick-wins as one of his objectives to quickly build credibility with the business. He wanted these short-term IT projects to use existing technology with the end-product being highly visible to the end-user. One of these quick wins was a better way to manage the proliferation of passwords that employees needed to access the hundreds of online applications. Using existing security capabilities and changing some overly restrictive policies, Kifer implemented single sign-on capability for more than 400 of the most frequently accessed programs. “With negligible cost to implement, this quick win – it took less than 30 days – strengthened our security controls, reduced our operating costs and improved worker productivity. It also served my quick-win criteria of being highly visible and positively affecting a large customer base,” says Kifer.

Becoming CIO is not just being the new person in charge of IT; it’s about changing your perspective to that of a business leader and new C-level exec. CIOs promoted from within say they found it tempting to continue doing parts of their old technologist jobs, like day-to-day application management. Instead, “You need to push yourself to change your perspective and embrace your new responsibilities,” recommends Petit. Abbene still remembers a piece of coaching advice he received: “Forget that you’ve been here. What do you think someone would do if they were coming in from off the street?”

And for those CIOs who are coming in off the street? “Be sure and understand the key success factors before you step in the door,” says Kifer. He thoroughly researched Applied Materials, contacting vendors he knew were working with the company, and learning what he could from the nine interviews he had with executives prior to taking the job. From this research, Kifer concluded that he needed to bring a “change leader” way of thinking to the table, and this was the foundation for his 90-day plan. Regardless of their path to the position, new CIOs must recognize early on the unique value of their position and work to that from the outset. As one respondent to the Council survey put it when asked for his best single nugget of advice: “Remember, the value of the CIO position is the intersection of business strategy and technology strategy. If you become “all business,” you cease to add distinctive value. It’s the same outcome if you become “all technology.” Learn the business, learn your technology architectures and chart a course that ties the two together.”

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The Top Three IT-Specific Priorities for the New CIO

While many priorities for CIOs in their first 90 days are applicable to any C-level business leader or function head, there are some that are more unique to IT. Of those, these three were ranked of highest importance in the CIO Executive Council survey.

  1. Understand the critical technology dependencies throughout the organization.
  2. Review and understand all current projects for which IT is the lead or a major contributor.
  3. Learn key metrics and implications of any internal SLAs that IT must deliver against.

The Top 10 Priorities for the First Three Months as a CIO

CIOs ranked the importance of 30 activities to a CIO’s success in the first three months of a job. These were the Top 10:

  1. Understand the corporate strategy and assess how well the department you have inherited is aligned with that strategy.
  2. Communicate your own goals and leadership style to your team.
  3. Identify key success factors for IT from the perspective of all BU and functional heads.
  4. Structure your days and weeks so that you have time to learn, focus and create short-term value while preparing a plan for the long-term.
  5. Spend time working with each group/team within your IT department to get a feel for team dynamics and become acquainted with individual team members.
  6. Seek to establish interpersonal relationships with influential people and lay the groundwork for coalitions.
  7. Understand the recent history and current state of the relationship between the IT department and each BU or corporate function.
  8. Target early wins that matter to your boss.
  9. Identify the informal networks in the organization (e.g. Who is sought out even though they have no formal authority in a matter? Who has the ear of the boss? Who do front-line employees seem to really trust and follow?).
  10. Negotiate the terms for success with your boss.

Source: Poll of 67 CIO respondents, published in “A Running Start: Success in your First 90 Days on the Job”, CIO Executive Council, December 2006.

Tools We Use
CIOs share helpful tools for the first 90 days and beyond.

  • Comprehensive Strategic Plan: Ron Kifer, group vice president and CIO at Applied Materials, created a high-level 90-day strategic plan before his first day on the job, drawing on his previous experience as CIO, extensive research, and best practice recommendations from outside experts. Within the first 30 days of arriving at Applied Materials, he developed a more comprehensive 90-day plan, which incorporated specific pain points of the company, the type of CIO leader required (a change agent) and the overall mandate by the executive team. The plan laid out steps to support this mandate, with the end-state goal of positioning the transformed IT organization as an innovation leader.
  • 30-60-90 Day Plan: Commonly used in sales functions, a 30-60-90 is also helpful for CIOs starting new jobs. Vicki Petit, vice president of information services at furniture manufacturer KI, created such a plan with her boss (the CFO) when first assuming the role. She could gauge her progress and outline what she needed to do in her new position at the 30 day, 60-day and 90-day mark.
  • Business Relationship Tracker: Petit created a simple Excel spreadsheet to track hours spent per month on building relationships in five areas: vendors, cross-functional meetings, individual business leaders, professional associations and external peers. She sets yearly goals in each area, tracks her progress in a bar chart and reports results to her boss monthly.
  • Personal Coach: Michael Abbene, CIO at Arch Coal, used an external coach – a former CIO from a different company – to offer guidance during his first 90 days, act as a sounding board and offer new perspective. Abbene had weekly phone discussions with the coach and regularly met with him face to face. The relationship continues today – albeit less formal—18 months after his first becoming CIO.

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