The first few weeks a CIO spends with a new IT team are both critical and challenging. Recent events haven’t made the job any easier.
A pandemic, digital innovation initiatives, and “The Great Resignation” have combined to make it more challenging than ever for an incoming CIO to engage with their new team and set a course for future success. “It takes a degree of empathy and team engagement that many CIOs may have felt less important in the past,” observes Kim Bozzella, global leader of the technology consulting practice at Protiviti.
Fitting in with and successfully leading a new team can lead to many years of management and personal accomplishments. That’s the good news. To ensure a smooth transition, here’s a rundown of ways to make sure you start off on the right foot.
“Start by pledging to foster an IT department culture that’s open, honest, and committed to excellence,” says Zachary Rossmiller, CIO at the University of Montana. He advises sharing insights on the department’s current status and soliciting support in shaping the future. “I finish the pledge by informing the team that I will continuously work to improve the environment in which we all operate.”
As a leader, be careful never to overpromise and underdeliver. “When trust is broken, it’s difficult to rebuild,” Rossmiller warns. “Additionally, don’t disrespect a team by exerting your authority to make change without expending the time and energy needed to make reasoned decisions.”
Winning a team over starts from the top down. “In most cases, the CIO will inherit an IT leadership team that already possess strong relationships with and support from the IT organization,” Bozzella says. “Getting this group’s buy-in to the new vision will help set the right tone throughout the IT team and help to win over the organization.”
Conversely, replacing the inherited IT leadership team with strangers provided by the new CIO risks creating barriers to trust building. Any leadership changes should be carefully weighed against this risk, she suggests. “Doing an early listening-tour with each of the team members — asking questions and seeking to understand — is a good first step in the multi-step journey.”
“Empower the individual leaders and focus on enabling them to be your successful execution arms,” advises Chris Mattmann, CTIO at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Realize that you aren’t the one that’s executing; you’re leading through your leadership while your team and organizations execute.”
To build a strong IT strategy and roadmap, it’s necessary to fully understand the enterprise’s overall strategy. Take some time to observe and understand both short- and long-term goals.
“Give yourself a month or two to complete a full assessment of the current IT landscape — the team, technology stack, programs, infrastructure, and key vendors,” suggests Jamshid Rezaei, CIO at telecommunications systems developer Mitel. “From there, you can partner with your direct reports and the extended team to define the IT strategy and its roadmap.”
In the interim, don’t disparage or ridicule the enterprise’s existing IT strategy. Rezaei compares an incoming CIO to a new soccer coach. “As a new coach, you don’t want to treat your players like they’re not good enough,” he says. Forget about the past. “Start from scratch; understand what’s there, where the gaps are, and put trust within your teams.”
Ask questions — many, many questions, suggests Scott Caschette, CIO at Schellman, an independent security and privacy compliance assessment firm. “Even if you know the answer, phrase it in the form of a question,” he recommends. “Stir the pot.”
Ask questions that may seem obvious; challenge team members in a friendly manner. “The more interactive and dynamic, the better,” Caschette says. Get staff creativity flowing by occasionally asking questions that are absurd or over the top. The point isn’t necessarily to get answers, it’s to create conversations, break down barriers, and build trust, he notes.
Successful CIOs have a mission-first focus. “As soon as you worry about personal glory, you’ve lost your team’s trust,” says Naveen Zutshi, CIO at software platform developer Databricks. “It’s important to be clear with your new team about what your IT vision and what you will need from the team to execute on that vision.”
Here it is important to be as specific as possible. “Empower the IT team by laying out exactly how this new vision will benefit their growth, the experiences they are likely to gain, and the other ways it will help them financially and professionally,” he adds.
A mission-led approach gives teams a clarity of purpose, challenging them to create something significantly better than what they believed was possible. Zutshi also believes that the technique leads to enhanced team loyalty and retention. “In addition, by focusing on and rewarding individual and team successes, you demonstrate that as a leader you are committed to supporting and helping each member of your team succeed professionally,” he notes.
Set aside time to monitor the new team’s internal dynamics — the ways personnel operate and interact with each other. “A big pitfall is only listening to the loudest person in the room,” warns Robin Bell, CIO at security technology provider Egress. “Take time to engage with all members of the team and build up a fuller picture of the situation before making decisions.”
When trying to win a new team’s loyalty, it can be tempting to form individual friendships. Yet there’s a big difference between being friendly and a friend. While strong connections are beneficial, it’s important not to go overboard on individual relationships. “Particularly when it comes to having more difficult conversations with members of your team, this can make things more difficult than they need to be,” Bell notes. “You want them to feel comfortable sharing their feedback with you while maintaining an appropriate level of distance.”
Resist the urge to implement immediate massive changes in team dynamics, rules, or procedures, says Rich Temple, vice president and CIO at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center. It’s important for the new CIO to realize that while things need to be done differently, the department’s current status exists for a reason. Current procedures shouldn’t be discarded until the new CIO fully understands why things were set up the way they are. “While it’s expected that a new CIO will bring new ideas and perspectives to the job, it can be scary and disorienting for team members to go through major changes in their day-to-day lives on top of the change in leadership that has just occurred,” Temple says.
Team members are usually always nervous when a new leader arrives, not just in regard to the quality of their day-to-day work lives, but also for their long-term job security. “The new CIO needs to earn the team’s trust that he or she is not just going to impose his or her will and is not looking to do a ‘slash-and-burn’ operation on the team,” Temple notes.