3 Traps New IT Leaders Need to Avoid

Three common mistakes first-time IT leaders make can freak out staff, get in the way of proving yourself, and ultimately cause you to fail. Here's how to dodge them.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

December 2, 2015

5 Min Read
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8 Ways You're Failing At Data Science

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In over a decade as a CIO. and decades spent mentoring dozens of growing leaders, I have seen some common traps that many new leaders fall into. The good news is that you can avoid them if you know about them. Here are three of the most common ones.

Trap No. 1: The Panic Trap

It is inevitable for new IT leaders to be "shocked" at how bad things are when they take a new role, especially when coming from a different organization.

I have news for you, Sunshine. Nobody hires from the outside if things are great. They would hire an internal candidate if things were going well.

When I arrived at my last job, the ERP was down. It was down for two days. It was a freak out moment. But as my new boss sagely observed: "That's why we brought you here." And that's why they brought you to your new role -- to fix things.

If you're lucky, things are merely a little bad. Maybe infrastructure and customers have both been neglected. That's easy to handle over time.

Even if you're unlucky (and may not have done your homework to ascertain what you were getting into) and things are super bad, remember that you are the person that they are looking at to bring them out of the storm and into a safe harbor. They have confidence in you.

Keep your head straight so that you are as helpful as possible. Seek small gains to create momentum. Panic is a trap that doesn't help anyone. It will freak out your staff and your bosses. So, chill.

Trap No. 2: The Status Quo Trap

Maybe you're not at a new organization. Maybe everything was in pretty good shape with the organization when you got the "big promotion."

There's still a trap to avoid.

The previous leaders thought things were pretty good. You did, too. Your previous leader's management probably thought so as well, since you were considered part of the status quo.

But I guarantee that not everyone thought things were peachy.

Get out there. Survey folks. But also have one-on-ones, outside the campus buildings if possible, because that is where you will get the most forthright feedback. Ask for honest opinions on what might have been wrong with the previous leader's way of doing things and what could be better.

The beautiful thing is that the previous leader is no longer around, so folks won't be hurting his or her feelings if they're brutally honest. That kind of feedback is like gold.

Make no mistake, you do not have the same cache and political standing that the previous leader did. You need to prove yourself. And staying with the status quo is the best way for you not to prove yourself.

Your best chance to create significant improvement and to add value is by looking for what you can still do better. Don't squander goodwill by sticking to the status quo. But don't make changes in a vacuum, either. Base your changes on candid feedback, and you'll be delighting your customers.

Trap No. 3: The Superhero Trap

I commonly hear highly technical people who assume their first leadership role say, "I can't believe that so-and-so architected the [network, storage system, cluster system] in such a [crappy, non-standard, unprofessional, amateur] way. I will never be able to trust them to do the complicated stuff. I'm going to have to stay hands on!"

No. You won't. And you can't. That's a gigantic trap.

If you're spending all of your time doing someone else's job, you won't have any time to do your job. And you will fail. Like it or not, you will have to trust your staff. or die of exhaustion trying to do every job.

[ There are more pitfalls to avoid. Read 3 Common And Costly CIO Mistakes. ]

If you want to get off to a good start, it is critical to avoid these three traps. It is said that experience comes from learning from your own mistakes, and that wisdom comes from learning from others' mistakes. You are still going to have your own painful experiences, but save yourself a lot of trouble and pain by avoiding these traps.

One great place to learn about the mistakes of others is Interop, specifically the IT Leadership Track, on which I have been a frequent speaker. There’s also a lot to be said for seeking leadership wisdom outside of your normal IT information channels. Dan Pink’s book about employee motivation (Drive) and Seth Godin’s book about how teams can become tribes and start a movement (Tribes) are great places to start. And, by all means, if you have other favorites that you think others would benefit from, let us know in the comments section below.

(Editor's Note: Author Jonathan Feldman's New Road Group is hosting an upcoming IT Leadership Bootcamp. This event is not affiliated with UBM. However, Feldman -- a longtime contributor to InformationWeek and participant in Interop and other UBM ive events -- is offering special discounts to his event for InformationWeek members. When you sign up for the event waiting list at go.feldman.org/iwinsiders, you will be eligible for a special InformationWeek "insider" discount.)

**New deadline of Dec. 18, 2015** Be a part of the prestigious InformationWeek Elite 100! Time is running out to submit your company's application by Dec. 18, 2015. Go to our 2016 registration page: InformationWeek's Elite 100 list for 2016.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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