How to survive CIO regime change
The average CIO stays on the job around four years. So chances are you'll live through at least one changeover.
How long does the average CIO stay on the job? Not very long. According to a Gartner Inc. survey of 1,527 CIOs, their average tenure in 2009 was four years and four months, a figure that has changed relatively little over the past several years, according to Mark McDonald, group vice president of Gartner Executive Programs. "It's been between four years and three months and four years and nine months," he says.
An annual Society for Information Management survey of SIM members and of companies in Europe and Asia paints a similar picture, with the average tenure lengthening from 3.6 years in a 2006 SIM study to 5.1 years today. The median tenure is between four and five years, with 57% of respondents reporting that their companies' top IT executives had been in their jobs four years or less.
How long has your CIO (or senior IT executive) held his position?
* Less than 1 year: 15%
* 1-2 years: 24%
* 3-4 years: 18%
* 5-7 years: 15%
* More than 7 years: 28%
Source: Society for Information Management survey of CIOs, CTOs and senior IT executives at more than 400 U.S., European, Asian and Latin American companies, October 2010
"There are many reasons CIOs leave their jobs," McDonald notes. "One fairly reasonable one is retirement. For many people, CIO is their apex job. That might account for about 25% of departing CIOs. Another third of them choose to get a job elsewhere, and probably a third lose their job, most often because of a change in leadership at the top of the organization, or else because of a failed project. The remainder move on to some other role within the organization, on the business side or in some other area."
One thing is clear: If you spend your career in corporate IT, you will likely live through more than one CIO regime change. In fact, in a 30-year tech career, you can expect to adjust to a new CIO at least six times. Yet despite the frequency of new CIO arrivals, many in IT handle these transitions badly. Whether they bad-mouth the previous CIO, create elaborate presentations about their own importance or demand more funding, lower-level techies and midlevel managers alike make a wide array of errors when a new CIO arrives.
Here are some of the most common -- and most costly -- missteps.
Misstep 1: Defending the Status Quo
"Don't ever say the words, 'That's not how we do it around here,'" McDonald warns.
It may be human nature to resist change, but it's foolish to expect that a new CIO won't shake things up. If top management was displeased with the previous CIO's performance, it's likely that the new CIO has a mandate to revamp or rethink IT in fundamental ways. But even if the old CIO left on good terms, a new CIO will want to make his or her mark.
And that's a good thing, says Ken LeBlanc, vice president, business unit CIO and SaaS operations at RSA, the security division of EMC. "Any time there's a change, whether it's a new leader or something else, there's a great opportunity to pause and reconfirm that your priorities are right to stay current with changing expectations," he says.
Baylor Health Care System: 'Disrespect me a little.'
When David Muntz took over as CIO of Baylor Health System four years ago, existing IT staffers greeted him with a certain amount of suspicion. You can't really blame them -- their department had been through a fair amount of upheaval. A long-term CIO had left abruptly about a year earlier, and before Muntz arrived, the department was run by an interim CIO provided by a consulting firm.
At the same time, Muntz says, "There were a lot of reductions in workforce. The IT department was reduced by about 80 full-time equivalents out of 450."
Others left voluntarily. "The few remaining people took a wait-and-see attitude," recalls Ken Maddock, vice president of clinical engineering and telecommunication services. "I'm not sure we were as welcoming as we should have been."
Maddock's strategy was simple: He believes in speaking truth to power. "I don't have a lot of fear about sharing information, but there were other people who did. They were even longer-term than I was, had seen a lot of change, and were very paranoid."
But Muntz soon made it clear he wanted all IT employees to speak their minds. "I tell every new employee that they need to have a little disrespect for me, and for the title," he says. "It seems counterintuitive, but if you will not tell me what I need to hear -- not what I want to hear -- neither one of us will be successful."
Sometimes that change of priorities means new opportunities. LeBlanc had spent four years as chief of staff to EMC's previous CIO when a new CIO arrived. LeBlanc wanted more involvement with business operations, so when the opportunity arose, he transitioned to his current role as a business unit CIO.
In some cases, a new CIO may make dramatic changes to your role, or cancel a project you've been working on, making accepting change particularly difficult. "People do get emotionally invested in projects, sometimes to the detriment of the overall organization," says Dan Gingras, a partner in the IT practice at executive search firm Tatum LLC. "That's one of the biggest problems we see in IT today."
He recommends doing some research rather than digging in your heels. "Try and understand the motivation for killing your project," Gingras says. "Find out if it was because of the budget or a change in direction. Or it may be something that you can't be privy to, and then you have to take a leap of faith."
He also recommends some soul-searching. "You have to be introspective about the reasons your project was killed," Gingras suggests. "Was it something you should have foreseen? If so, you may need to be more aware of the bigger circumstances around your job."
Misstep 2: Not Learning the New CIO's Priorities
If your IT department is like many others, the news that a new CIO is about to arrive will prompt staffers to frantically search the Internet, watch presentations on YouTube, query colleagues and read IT industry publications in an effort to learn whatever they can about the newcomer. "It's hard for a CIO to be anonymous," McDonald says. "They will have some presence in the Internet sphere, which should give you a sense of how the new person talks and what's important to him or her."
Make a special effort to find out what's important to the newcomer, he advises. In fact, when you meet the new CIO, the first thing you should do is ask about his priorities. "Say something like, 'I'd like to understand why you came here and what upper management expects from you,'" he says. "You may get an answer like, 'They hired me to consolidate IT operations.'"
Whatever that mission is, make it your mission. "Ask the new boss what you can do to help him or her be successful," Gingras says.
Similarly, it's wise to give careful thought to the new CIO's priorities before requesting extra funding or other resources. "Too many people come into a new CIO's office and say, 'I'm sure glad you're on board, because we couldn't get anything done with the previous CIO. Here's what we're doing, and if we just had additional resources, we could deliver much more,'" notes Steve Watson, managing director for the Dallas office of search firm Stanton Chase International.
United States Tennis Association: Right People, Wrong Jobs
When Larry Bonfante took over as CIO at the United States Tennis Association more than eight years ago, "the situation I inherited was a train wreck," he says flatly. Upper management thought IT personnel were the problem and expected Bonfante to clean house. But he soon concluded that the majority of unsuccessful IT employees were simply in the wrong jobs. "If you work to people's strengths, they'll be successful. If you work to their weaknesses, they'll fail," he says.
After discussing the issues with IT employees and getting their input on what was and wasn't working, he set out to reassign some of them to different roles. "We had one person who was a good technologist and a good team leader but a poor administrator, and he was in a VP role," he says. "We had people in technical roles who were best suited to project management."
In each case, he sat down with the person to be reassigned. "I shared the game plan with them and said, 'Here's what we'd like to accomplish. If this is something you can get behind, come on in, the water's fine. If not, that doesn't make you a bad person and I'll help you find a job elsewhere.'" When some took him up on the offer for help finding a new job, he sent them to an executive search firm where he had contacts, and helped them polish their résumés. But they were the minority. "We were able to keep about 80% of the staff," he says.
A few people reacted angrily to the drastic changes. "It's easy to be pissed off and to feel you got screwed, which are normal human reactions," he says. "Get past them as quickly as possible. Even if you decide to go somewhere else, you will be here for some period of time and it's important to stay positive."
As for those employees who let their ire taint the workplace, he adds, "They got separated. Maybe they would have been anyway, but I would have worked with them to see if they could fit into the larger organization and I would have given them more time to get their legs under them. If you're going to be a cancer in an organization, you'll have a very short shelf life."
It's likely that the CIO is facing pressure to cut IT costs, Watson points out, so you're better off looking for creative ways to reduce your expenses. "That's a mindset that rising stars ought to have," he says.
Misstep 3: Offering Too Much Information
Unless a new CIO was promoted from within your organization, he or she will know little about your IT projects or teams. So you'll need to provide a report about your duties -- and that's where many IT managers go into overdrive.
"Everyone else will snow the new CIO with 20-to-30-slide presentations and organizational charts, trying to justify their existence," McDonald says. "But if you lay out a lot of slides, that makes you seem big, which equals expensive." He recommends a briefing that's no more than 10 minutes long. "CIOs appreciate anyone who recognizes that they don't have a lot of time," he says.
Another good approach is to ask the CIO what information is wanted, and in what form. "You can say, 'Please explain to me what your communication style is, and here's what mine is,'" says Ken Maddock, vice president of clinical engineering and telecommunications services at Baylor Health Care System.
At the same time, be sure to let the new CIO know about any obstacles you're facing. "People have a tendency to try to hide problems," Maddock says. "They think they have time before the new CIO learns that something is going on, and that they can get it fixed. Then, when it does come up, it looks even worse."
Being very open about problems is the strategy Maddock pursued when a new CIO arrived at Baylor. The department had faced some uncertainty and had suffered some staff reductions, and many of his co-workers either laid low or planned their departures. But Maddock's policy of honesty paid off. He was previously director of biomedical engineering but was brought into a departmental leadership council and was eventually promoted to his current position by the new CIO.
Misstep 4: Trying to Be Inconspicuous
Many employees believe that the safest course is a wait-and-see approach, keeping a low profile until they can get a feel for how the new boss works. While this may seem logical, it can be bad for your career.
"There are two dangers to laying low," says Larry Bonfante, CIO at the United States Tennis Association. "First, if you're one of the nameless, faceless masses, it's easier to think of you as expendable. Second, if I'm in that position, I'd rather know sooner than later where I stand, and whether I'm going to be part of the solution here or need to go on to a new opportunity."
EMC: A Customer Becomes the Boss
Before Sanjay Mirchandani became CIO at EMC, he was an executive on the business side. "Sanjay was an EMC employee running a very large business unit, so he came in as a former internal customer of ours," recalls Ken LeBlanc, business unit CIO and SaaS operations for RSA, EMC's security division.
"I'm sure he came into the role with a perception from his own experiences with our organization. Until you're in IT, it's not always obvious why some processes and frameworks are they way they are, so part of my responsibility was to help him become an IT guy."
At the same time, Mirchandani wanted IT to see itself from the business units' point of view. "He made us much more aware of the internal customer experience," LeBlanc says. "He placed a significant focus on how to improve the total customer experience. We looked at how we interact with our colleagues across EMC, and how we handle difficult escalations within the organization."
In particular, Mirchandani set out to make EMC's IT department into a showcase for the company's products a "drink your own Kool Aid" approach. This required a transition to the private cloud, one of EMC's key offerings. "That was a fundamental change for our organization," LeBlanc says. "It did make some people pause and wonder what it means to be an IT professional now. Competencies that make someone successful may be different from what they were before."
In the end, EMC wound up with a stronger IT organization and a stronger company, according to LeBlanc. "After a few years of focusing on staff productivity, it was probably the right time to raise the game and begin contributing directly to EMC's product development and sales opportunities," he says. "I think much more globally now. I also have a better appreciation of how an IT organization within a high-tech enterprise can contribute and be accepted as a strategic business partner."
Experts recommend taking the initiative. "You should really approach your new boss, or your boss's boss," Gingras says.
Like most of the advice in this story, that's a good strategy for IT employees at every level, though the approach might vary depending on what you do. "Even if you're a PC technician, it never hurts to knock on the door and say, 'Welcome to the company! How can I help you succeed?'" Gingras says.
If you don't have the opportunity to directly give the new CIO an overview of your responsibilities, then offer one to your immediate boss for him or her to pass on to the CIO, Watson advises. "It's always a good strategy to make your boss look good, so proactively providing an executive summary of your responsibilities and deliverables status could set you apart."
When you do get a chance to talk to the new CIO, always remind him or her of your name, Watson says. "And when attending a joint meeting with the CIO and your peers, find opportunities to speak out and offer added insight or data," he says.
You should avoid sitting through such a meeting without saying anything, he adds. But at the same time, "be careful not to over-speak, and not to appear political," he warns.
Misstep 5: Failing to Reapply for Your Job
"When a new CIO comes in, you're in essence auditioning for your job," Bonfante says. "You should be confident that you have value and willing to market what you've done for the organization. But don't act like the job is guaranteed. You should always act as if you're being interviewed."
"It may not be obvious, and it may not be stated," Gingras adds. "But the new CIO will come with his or her own ideas, people and processes. There's a tendency for IT employees to think that they're untouchable because they've been with the organization for 10 or 20 or 30 years. No matter what's happened in the past, you effectively have to reapply for your job."
Attitude is everything. "You'd be surprised how often people want to tell [a new boss] about all the bad things in the organization," says Gingras, who often works as an interim CIO. You wouldn't talk like that at a job interview, and you shouldn't in this situation either.
"Focus on areas where you think you can improve IT, and talk about your ideas," Bonfante says. "Nobody cares how bad the old CIO was. The past is the past, and putting someone else down will not make you look good in anybody's eyes."
Misstep 6: Giving In to Fear
"The No. 1 thing I've learned is, don't assume bad things are going to happen, and don't go into it with illusory fears," Maddock says. "People have a tendency to assume the worst when someone new comes in. Instead, go in with a positive attitude, and that will be infectious."
After all, you may not be the only one who's afraid. "Remember that the person walking in the door is a human being and probably has the same fears you do," Bonfante says. "So give the new CIO the benefit of the doubt."
Hello, I Must Be Going
You should always approach a new CIO with an open mind, a positive attitude and a willingness to do whatever is needed to support a new strategy. But there are times when a new CIO's arrival means you should start planning your departure. Here are some signs that it may be time to consider a change:
* The new CIO is intent on bringing in a new team. "If a CIO who comes in with an intact management team starts shooting people on day one and bringing in his or her own people, that indicates that the CIO has preconceived notions of how to manage the IT operation," says Larry Bonfante, CIO at the United States Tennis Association. "It's an indication that you should get out of Dodge."
* The new CIO doesn't seek your input. "When I came in, I sat down with each of the members of the team so I could get their perspectives," Bonfante says. "If someone doesn't do that, it's a bad sign."
* The new CIO only pretends to listen. "You have to start off by being open, and see how the new person responds," says Ken Maddock, vice president of clinical engineering and telecommunications services at Baylor Health Care System. "Is the new CIO actively listening, really paying attention to what you're saying? Or just going through the exercise of theoretically listening? And if the person is really listening, what is the response? Does the new CIO let you come up with your own solutions?" If an incoming CIO doesn't really listen to incumbent IT executives, it's probably time to move on.
* The new CIO is a former rival. If the company promoted one of your rivals from within the IT organization, and the rivalry was collegial, you can and should find a new way to work this person. Make it clear you understand that this is a new day, that your former competitor is now the boss, and that you will do everything to support him or her. "However, if the rivalry was somewhat unhealthy, you should probably get out your résumé," says Dan Gingras, a partner at Tatum. "It depends on the politics of your organization."
* The old CIO offers new opportunities. If your skills are polished and marketable and you have a good relationship with the former CIO, then his or her departure could represent an opportunity for you. "If the CIO you worked for has gone on to better things, you may be pulled along," Gingras says. "I have a very short list of people I would take with me to any new CIO job -- and I have [done so]."
Zetlin is co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other, and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006).