Charm school for CIOs

The first part of the year is a natural time for implementing organizational changes, and so a lot of CIOs are transitioning now to new positions. Some are switching companies; others are moving between divisions or into newly created divisional CIO roles. Regardless, the challenges revolve around how to make a good first impression and set the course for the future.

If you are transitioning to a new position, you may feel like a 12-year-old going to your first school dance — everyone seems to be watching you, and you just want to fit in. The good news is that fewer are watching than you think; the other executives are too wrapped up in themselves to give you more than a passing glance.

The bad news is that it’s not enough to just fit in. New executives are brought in to make things happen. You have only a few months to assess the current situation, get your game plan together and signal what you care about to the rest of the organization.

New CIOs need to keep this mantra top of mind: First be charming, then be tough. Before you dismiss charm as irrelevant to your role as an executive, remember that if your ultimate goal is influence, then job number one is to build relationships. Meanwhile, you can assess the situation for IT and formulate your plan of attack.

New CIOs are often greeted with closed arms. Breaking through requires an emphasis on people over tasks — that is, charm. Spend time with your direct reports, influential executives and their staffs, intensive users of IT services, and the front line (employees who deal directly with customers). Discuss their agendas, objectives, concerns and suggestions.

During these sessions, ask questions and take visible action to deliver short-term wins (for instance, resolve a service issue or ensure that a performance appraisal is written).

These face-to-face meetings accomplish more than building relationships and credibility. They also provide the information necessary to define your IT game plan — as long as you ask the right questions. Make sure that during your conversations with others, you are probing for insights in the following three areas: Where should IT investments occur? Is the organization capable of capitalizing on the potential of IT? Will the installed technical infrastructure stand in the way?

Investment opportunities are theoretically derived from an understanding of the industry, company financials, business strategy (explicit or inferred) and competitor positioning. But real-world IT investment opportunities are found at the intersection of business value and motivation. Practical investment requires filtering the theoretical opportunities through the motivation of the executives who are running the business and will be accountable for realizing value.

Determining whether the organization can capitalize on IT’s potential requires understanding the track record of success (and root causes of failure), appropriateness of current investment levels, and the ability to manage resources and projects. You must assess the strategic alignment, riskiness and health of current initiatives. Evaluating the technical infrastructure entails a review of the current technology footprint, operating costs, standards, and platform stability and scalability. You have to assess the infrastructure’s fit with business needs, from both operating and strategic perspectives.

Your recommendations most likely will include changes to projects, technology, processes, resources and funding. Remember to define and stage your game plan to be consistent with the maturity of your IT capability and your organization’s appetite for change. For example, it’s impossible for IT to gain strategic positioning if core transaction systems are missing, data is fragmented and of poor quality, and the infrastructure is unstable. Remembering the “first be charming, then be tough” mantra, gain support for your game plan by soliciting input from critical stakeholders and presenting the concepts in a way that clearly demonstrates you are keeping their interests — and the enterprise’s — on centre stage.

Finally, as your tenure increases, change your mantra to “be charming and tough.” The triple whammy of lack of time, resource constraints and rising expectations creates a mental pressure cooker that often results in CIOs behaving badly. This is usually manifested in decisions made without adequate information and communicated using formal rather than informal channels. Charmless CIOs who rely solely on positional power and expert authority for their influence are the ones left without dance partners as they try to forward their agendas.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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