Surviving as the First CIO, Part II

Surviving as a company’s first CIO is one of the toughest challenges in the IT industry. In our last article, we discussed a couple of factors to be considered when evaluating a potential employer, i.e. you have to be able to assess the company culture for danger signals of one kind or another.

This article will illustrate what to look for, and how to sidestep some of the risks you might be facing.


In a sense, this is the easiest challenge you’ll face. Understanding the technology infrastructure is what you already understand. Understanding the business infrastructure is where you should be concentrating your efforts.

Those first bridges you built with other functional organizations will serve you well in the “honeymoon” period you’ll enjoy during the first 90 days of your tenure.

Spend the necessary time learning the culture. This is where the skills you’ve perfected over your career will serve you well.

Business/Technology Alignment

How well has the organization’s technology been aligned with the core mission? You did get a copy of the company’s strategic plans during the final interview stages, didn’t you? Surely you studied them assiduously to ace the interview … if not, you were lucky, and don’t press that luck.

Get the strategic plan, commit it to memory, go to the head of every functional unit and discuss the strategic plan and how it is being implemented. Learn where the technology can reduce the friction.

What, no strategic plan!? Alarm bells should start ringing in the back of your head. It doesn’t have to be a big, three-ring binder, but the company should be able to articulate and document its strategy.

My last company’s strategy was “Get to $500 million in sales.” Needless to say, they were confused and disorganized. A sales goal is not a strategy, nor is simply saying, “We want to sell more products.”

If the company doesn’t have a strategy, you can view it either as a warning, if you’re in the interviewing phase, or an opportunity, if you’ve accepted the job. You can lead the effort to synthesize the plan, to articulate and document what’s been so far unsaid and unwritten.

It’s tough to apply technology to reduce friction and achieve competitive advantage without an underlying business strategy. You can’t do gap analysis if you can’t articulate the final state.

The management team should be relentlessly focused on strategy. They should be asking you how technology can be used to implement the plan. If not, you’re going to have a challenge.

Lack of Credibility

This is a two-edged sword. The previous organization my have lacked credibility — hence the creation of the role of CIO — but you may be seen as riding in on a white horse. You need to create credibility early in your tenure, practicing what Tom Peters calls “The theory of the small win.”

In other words, find some low-hanging fruit, quickly. This will be a project with relatively high visibility, moderate value, easy to execute and dead certain to succeed.

For example, if the company doesn’t have a Web presence, get one fast; if they’ve had a failed implementation, particularly of a small package, get it implemented fast. Hire outside talent to get a project finished if necessary, but find a small win — and find it fast.

Nothing will increase your credibility faster than a win. In my last role as initial CIO (ICIO), a 60-day intranet, the implementation of a packaged HRIS system, and a VoIP implementation within the first year helped establish my credibility.

Always remember that you have a small window of time to establish your “bona-fides,” and if you miss the window, it will be an uphill slog from then on.

The Risks

Let’s face it, CIO is a risky occupation. Walking the tightrope between technology and business is always challenging. It marks the pinnacle in our career track, and so it should be difficult; it should attract only the best.

Being first in line as CIO has some additional risks. Here are some against which you should steel yourself.

Unrealistic expectations. Riding in on a white horse, you can expect some scrutiny. You may be seen as the savior and, if you fail to walk on water, there may be some disappointment.

Setting the expectations of the organization early is important. Agreeing and communicating on those expectations is particularly important. Consider creating a steering committee of senior managers to agree on the expectations.

Once you’ve agreed on the expectations, communicate them religiously. This is where an intranet can communicate the plans. In smaller companies, an IT newsletter can serve the same purpose. If neither has been done in the past, it can be seen as a small win, and you will increase your credibility while setting realistic expectations.

Lack of sponsorship. Missed this in the hiring process? Shame on you. You’re in a hole that’s going to be difficult to climb out of.

Sometimes it’s difficult to spot lack of sponsorship, but as previously indicated, there will be some tips in the hiring process. Try not to miss them.

As ICIO for a high-technology company, I failed to spot the misalignment between the founder and CEO, and the senior VP of Administration to my own peril.

I had the sponsorship of my superior, the SVP, who wanted a major change agent. I failed to see that the CEO was adverse to change, and that once I started to create major change his discomfort would manifest itself as a lack of sponsorship; fatally so.

In the end, I learned that if the management team was unclear about the sponsorship of change, it would eventually lead to problems.

Improper alignment. Generally the role of ICIO will be one of bringing the business and technology into proper alignment. There should no reluctance on the part of the organization to bring the technology into alignment with the business.

Reluctance to do this should be seen as a warning that you were brought in to fix a discrete problem or to quiet political unrest about the technology function.

Learn and grow. Having moved up to CIO there’s always something to learn, whether it be a new business strategy or a hot new technology. The management team that hires for this function generally is mistaken in thinking that this is a good opportunity for someone in another organization to move up to the role of CIO when, in fact, it really requires someone with previous experience as a CIO.

Being first is a unique role and offers both greater rewards, although generally intangible, and greater risks than the second or later incarnation of this role. Understanding the difference in being first is crucial to surviving.

Daniel Gingras has been CIO of five major companies and is a partner at Tatum Partners, a national professional services organization of senior-level technology and financial executives who take on leadership roles for client companies — generally organizations undertaking significant change. Daniel has more than 30 years of experience in technology strategy and implementation. He also teaches computer science at Boston University and can be reached at [email protected]