Letter to a young CIO

Letter to a young CIO

The challenges facing a new information chief can be daunting, but careful planning can lessen the load and pave the way to great achievements.

A subtle change is taking place as the baby-boomer cohort is progressively displaced by the next generation of CIOs. Yet many new CIOs, particularly former technical managers, are remarkably underprepared for their new roles. The following is a letter from an experienced CIO to Abigail, an upwardly mobile IT executive, about to commence her first CIO role. ‘Dear Abbie,

I’ve watched your career with great interest since you graduated with your MBA several years ago. Now you’ve been appointed to your first CIO role. Welcome to the C-suite! There are high expectations on CIOs and you’ll probably encounter unimagined challenges. Some you may not even perceive as challenges until it’s too late. As a former CIO I thought it might be helpful to provide some tips to help you get established.

Diagnose, formulate, validate then act: You’ll have limited time to assert yourself. Popular reckoning puts this at about 100 days. Use this time wisely. Methodically diagnose the issues that will benefit most from CIO attention, emphasising anything that can deliver value that will be recognised within the organisation.

Consider yourself a consultant engaged by the CEO to strengthen IT’s contribution to the business. Consult widely with CXOs, subject matter experts, your direct reports and IT staff. If approached enthusiastically, you’ll probably be overwhelmed with candour.

Identify five or six top priority issues. Be clear on why they need actioning and the expected benefits. Avoid big-ticket initiatives with long lead times. Focus on what can be achieved relatively quickly to establish your brand reputation; e.g. investigating open source alternatives to a costly legacy system.

Now for the important part: don’t act alone. Meet with your immediate superior (in your case the COO) outlining your findings and recommendations. Practise your 30-second elevator pitch in advance. During the meeting, seek feedback and validation. Then, put your plan into action.

Take a measured approach to project delivery: After you’ve completed your diagnosis, in addition to projects already ‘in flight’ you’ll probably have identified other candidate projects. Be careful. Subject to IT governance arrangements you may be tempted to proceed with more projects, perhaps winning accolades from stakeholders. However, capacity to successfully deliver should remain paramount. Remember, to a large extent your CIO reputation will be based upon successful project delivery.

Get close to the most business-critical projects. Be prepared to intervene swiftly when any projects exhibit troubling symptoms.

Ensure the quality of IT services is unassailable: Don’t treat complaints about IT services as mere background noise, especially when reported by senior executives. Remember, it is difficult to hold a credible discussion on strategy with other C-level executives when there are lingering problems with poor IT service or system stability.

Seek to understand the root cause of any issues, take appropriate action and let the business and IT know you are serious about fixing the problems. CIOs have fallen for overseeing consistently unsatisfactory service.

Build sound C-level and board relationships: Treat other C-level executives with respect, but also as peers. In addition to the usual formal CXO gatherings, take the time to meet with each of them regularly on an informal basis, perhaps over coffee or a working lunch. Get to know what motivates them and what the key issues are in their business units.

Seek their feedback on new ideas you think will add value to the business. Use the opportunity to gain commitment on new projects before formal endorsement is sought. Don’t forget to subtly sell your achievements to build confidence in the value of IT.

Remember to communicate like a C-level executive: use the language of business, avoiding IT-speak in any of its forms.

By focusing primarily on business rather than technology issues, inevitably you’ll be invited to present to the board. Though tempting to display your knowledge, avoid detail and multiple themes. Keep your message simple, strategic and to the point, focusing on business outcomes.

Focus on staff development and inclusiveness: You’ll often be engaged in activities outside the bounds of your new department. Carefully assess, then build your senior team to a level of strength that will allow them to manage whilst you focus on providing leadership within IT and across the organisation.

Make yourself accessible to all IT staff, identifying and developing any rising stars within the ranks and by providing regular updates on the department and the organisation.

Use time productively: Your senior executive status means you’ll be in high demand. There will probably be more meeting invitations than you can manage. Select those you plan to regularly attend, then do so religiously. Delegate other meeting attendances to senior team-members.

Administrative work can easily undermine your productivity. Develop capable administrative staff who can ease your load, managing by exception as required.

Ensure you have set aside enough reflective time for strategy development — this may be 20 percent or more of your time, but represents the essence of the CIO’s job.

Best wishes and may you continue to achieve every success, Rob.

Rob Mackinnon is an adviser with IBRS. Email comments to

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