A Flying Start for Chief Information Officers
The first few months in any role are critical. The first few months of a newly appointed chief information officer’s (CIO) tenure represent the best opportunity he or she will ever have to view the new organisation objectively and to put the building blocks in place for a compelling technology agenda.
Given the benefit of hindsight, how would recently recruited CIOs change the way they approached the role in their first three months, and what would they have had their employers do differently? Russell Reynolds Associates asked these questions to CIOs across Europe who had recently joined complex, international organisations in a range of industry sectors, including consumer, energy, financial services and technology.
The overwhelming conclusion of the CIOs we spoke with is that developing a level of intimacy with the business and with its leaders is more important in the first three months than specific information technology-related actions, as outlined in the diagram below.
Relationships before action: road map to a flying start for CIOs
The employer should…
...be specific about the scope of the role and communicate it clearly…
The scope of certain roles can be complex. The employer has a responsibility to communicate this clearly. Organisations need to ensure that the scope of the CIO role is positioned appropriately with all stakeholders: the candidate, the board, peers and the wider organisation. This begins with the interview process. The candidates and interviewers should have an unambiguous understanding of the overall mandate for the role (including the geographic, functional and divisional boundaries) to ensure that expectations are met on both sides. The interview process should be focused and should ensure that the potential CIO gets a broad exposure to the characters and culture of the organisation. A Dutch CIO with responsibility for a global IT infrastructure organisation of 700 people says, “Before I joined, I interviewed with seven different people. Although I felt that was a ridiculously high number at the time, it worked really well, as I knew what I was getting into.”
...set clear and measurable objectives…
On a more granular level, it is important that all stakeholders are clear about the personal objectives that have been established for the new CIO. This is particularly important for divisional CIO roles with dual reporting lines. A frequent issue raised was the lack of alignment between the IT function and business management. The new CIO will be much more effective if there is agreement on the key objectives. A divisional CIO of a global consumer products business comments, “Their [individual business managers’ and IT heads’] views were inconsistent. I had to negotiate a lot, often one-on-one, which was very time consuming.”
In no less than 50 percent of appointments, there was no professional handover from the predecessor, either because the predecessor no longer was in place or because the organisation was poorly managed. This creates a vacuum that needs to be filled through the development of clear objectives and support from peers and senior executives. Filling this vacuum is even more important for those CIOs who are taking on newly created roles. The group CIO of an electronics manufacturer says, “It was a new role in a fast-changing environment, so a good and continuous dialogue about objectives was required.” Another newly appointed CIO with IT staff in 12 countries developed his own solution: “I started in a vacuum. Therefore, I conducted a short survey with key stakeholders to understand their requirements.”
...be transparent about the current environment, its ambiguities and challenges…
In order for the CIO to make a successful start, it is important that the CEO, board and peers are realistic and transparent about the current environment, particularly within the function. Changes in leadership inevitably create uncertainty internally, and the CIO needs to understand quickly where potential issues might arise. Many newly appointed CIOs feel they are not given a clear picture of the business and the issues either before they join or in introductory meetings. One group CIO comments, “If they had only been open about the issues they already knew about, it would have been a much smoother on-boarding process.” A CIO in the United Kingdom says, “I assumed that some of the business as usual was better than it actually was.” A CIO in France notes, “Some people on my team were unhappy because they had not been promoted. I did not know what had been promised. Ultimately, two people left.”
…and provide truly professional human resources and logistics support.
Most people agree that employers are diligent in ensuring that the logistics are in place for new CIOs, from relocation services to the supply of equipment. But some multinationals really stood out by providing a five-star service: “Everything was there, even though I started earlier than anticipated,” says one CIO. Another, who relocated from the United States to Europe, found all his paperwork was done on Day One: “They drove me around to visit all of the organisations, including immigration, the bank and the insurance company. Even my refrigerator had been stocked. Also, human resources support was excellent. They showed me the succession plan for my team, explained the appraisal system early on and there was a compulsory e-learning tool, which quickly helped me to understand supplier policies, compliance issues, etc.” Clearly, providing appropriate human resources and logistical support for newly appointed executives contributes to the success of the on-boarding process.
Newly appointed CIOs should…
…build personal relationships with business and technology leaders…
There is little doubt that the first priority for most newly appointed CIOs is to meet with key executives to gain an in- depth understanding of the business and the role of information technology within it. For the CIO to get off to an effective start, it is essential that everyone be honest and open about the challenges, the culture of the organisation and the business processes. This is not always the case.
The divisional CIO of a $30 billion company in the Netherlands says, “I spent 60 percent of my first 100 days meeting business leaders around the globe in person. In hindsight, I should have spent more time with the IT leaders as well. I have been criticized for not doing that.” The CIO of a global auction company notes, “I spent a great deal of time on this—travelled all over the world. I was told, ‘you seem to be everywhere.’ People really appreciated the interest.”
Others strongly regretted they did not invest enough time upfront in listening to and challenging the business leaders. “I got bogged down in day-to-day stuff and did not give this the priority that it deserved,” says one respondent. Another respondent agrees, “I would challenge some people on their perspectives more from Day One as opposed to taking things for granted. At the time, I did not see it as important—but that was wrong.”
…evaluate how to best influence the decision-making process…
Understanding the priorities of key leaders and your own objectives is not enough. The new CIO also needs to evaluate how to best influence the decision-making process in order to make change happen. Several respondents wish they had understood the decision-making process sooner: “I tried to influence the Division Management Team as a group.
I now do so in one-on-one discussions, which are hugely time consuming but much more productive. I no longer raise issues in groups.” Another regrets that he had not taken more time to “understand how things work” in terms of the process and structure of the organisation. He comments, “My company had acquired multiple businesses. It took me some time to understand that the cultures of these businesses were totally different. I received negative comments on some of my initiatives, not so much because the initiatives were not good but because I had not presented them to the right people at the right time.”
Interestingly, one view from the CIO of a major organisation was that he should have spent “more time with people who joined the company a year ago: They know the business quite well but still believe change is necessary and possible, contrary to many others who have been here 10 years or more.”
...leverage the knowledge of top-tier strategic suppliers…
Strategic suppliers can be a valuable source of information. Some CIOs think that meeting with suppliers is a helpful way of identifying some quick wins; others feel it is time consuming and diverts attention away from more important internal issues. Some people note that suppliers can be relied upon for an “independent” view of the business; however, most new CIOs agree that newly appointed executives should meet with strategic suppliers but not invest too much time with them too soon. Those who preferred to wait explain that they wanted to get their priorities clear before beginning discussions with suppliers, arguing that it makes for a much more powerful starting position in negotiations. “Meeting suppliers was a waste of time. They all want to meet you; however, I think you need to tackle the internal issues first and then start meeting the suppliers gradually.”
...and balance strategic vision with quick wins.
Striking the right balance between achieving some quick wins and focusing on the overall strategic issues proves equally important and difficult. Faced with significant challenges, one CIO comments, “The organisation was run by fear and was not in good shape. I designed the layout of the strategy for the way forward. I removed the concept of IT as a separate company. The organisation is still backlogged with operational matters, though.” The global CIO of an a800 million electronics company notes, “In hindsight, I should have focused more on some quick wins, for instance, merging our five different e-mail systems. This would have bought me time to make the fundamental changes happen.” But there also is the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture because of too much short-term focus. Many people report that they had allowed themselves to be distracted too easily by day-to-day issues and found themselves firefighting from Day One. The newly appointed CIO of a leading global software company states, “In hindsight, I should have focused less on short-term issues, as they distracted me from midterm and strategic tasks.” A global divisional CIO wishes he had announced major change sooner: “In this large organisation it took 13 months to drive the change, while people expected it much sooner, especially when an outsider (i.e., me) took the helm.”
The key to success for the employer and the new CIO is an open and continuous dialogue about the business, the culture and the processes, and what is working or not working. The challenges faced by new CIOs, for the most part, are related to people and organisation, not technology. There often is a temptation to make immediate decisions on technology projects to achieve quick wins. However, early actions, taken without an in-depth understanding of the broader business issues and its leaders, may not be appropriate long-term solutions.
In other words, a newly appointed CIO should seek to understand the business and its leaders thoroughly before being understood, while employers should provide all available support in doing so.