10:49 AM
Jim Ditmore
Jim Ditmore

Start 2012 Like You Have A New Job

CIOs and IT leaders should take a first 90 days mindset to start the year on the right track. Define a clear vision, get connected, and inspect.

This is my first column for InformationWeek. Having served in IT management for 25 years, 14 of them as a CIO or CTO, I'm looking forward to sharing my insights into how to tackle the tough but solvable business technology problems we all face. In addition to drawing from personal experiences, I'll provide some sensible perspectives on the latest technologies and trends.

Let's start with a subject that's relevant to not just those embarking on a new IT leadership position, but to every business technology leader who wants to start the year on the right track. What should you do in the first 90 days?

Move quickly and decisively. The first 90 days isn't about settling in and meeting people and deciding the decor for your office. Nor is it about starting up a bunch of cool pet projects for the CEO. Your focus should be on three main things:

-- Set the vision and goals for your team. Begin communicating your vision almost immediately. Start with broad strokes, focusing first on the cultural aspects--for example, our No. 1 job will be quality and service availability, or we will become the best X platform in the industry, or we will be efficient and easy for customers to use. If you're starting a new role, you should be sorting out your vision even before you start. Then, as you gain more knowledge about corporate initiatives and priorities, fill around your vision with clear goals.

Make sure your vision pays heed to the meat and potatoes of the company's primary value chain. I find it useful to sort aspirations from the main thrust of the company. Usually, the corporate vision can be easily cascaded to your vision, but ensure that aspirational elements (such as product innovation in a company that's been successful based on great customer service or operational efficiency) aren't front and center.

When I first started as CIO at an online brokerage company, the business aspirational talk was about how could we deliver the latest cool stock research tool. But given pressing availability issues, we focused instead on reliability and making our Web interface fast and simple. This work catalyzed with our corporate brand of being easy to use and trustworthy. The end result was hundreds of thousands of new customers, and fast and simple became the main thrust of our corporate marketing campaign.

Keep your vision simple and direct. Then, as you learn more, work with your team to develop clear goals and progress metrics that drive to your vision.

-- Connect with all the stakeholders of IT--your customers, peers, boss, and team. Obviously, you'll meet early and often with your direct reports and their managers. Listen first, but also communicate your vision and key operating principles. If you make commitments in these early meetings, you must absolutely meet them. Your reputation is on the line.

Spend plenty of time connecting with your boss and key peers. Make sure you understand fully what's needed and expected. Use these sessions to sound out the company vision, goals, plans, and initiatives. And if these executives mention that you ought to look into something, it's not a hint--put it at the top of your priority list.

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Meet with your team, all of your staff. Visit them onsite. Don't just talk to them; set up forums that encourage questions and discussion. But don't forget to succinctly communicate your vision and key expectations.

Meet with your customers--and listen to them. What are the underlying issues troubling them? Follow up these sessions with time to discuss and set joint expectations and goals.

I've often found that the biggest issue colleagues and users have with IT is a lack of responsiveness. And if you don't take the time to listen and then follow up on your commitments to them, you won't establish strong relationships with them. When I started at a large company several years ago, I was warned about the acrimonious relationship IT had with a very powerful business leader. After meeting with him and listening, we were able to sort out the small but persistent issues that had poisoned the waters for years. Subsequently, he became one of IT's staunchest advocates.

-- Use these connection sessions to define both near-term actions and longer-term goals that delineate your vision. Write up your findings, reach out to some of your peers for further review and refinement, and validate them with your boss. Have the senior members of your team assist in crafting further details.

In addition to connecting to understand the landscape, you must also inspect--make sure that the fundamentals are in place, the big things are getting done, and you have a full view of the major risks and threats. I recommend the following regimen:

-- Review the top three to five initiatives.

-- Review the key production practices (change, incident).

-- Review the key business systems and understand upcoming releases, costs, security and quality practices, and outstanding issues.

-- Tour the command center and data center.

-- Walk through the project methodology and several small to midsize projects.

-- Check out how new employees get technology--is it effective?

-- Go to a branch or retail store. Visit a call center. See how the business is using your technology and learn their view of it.

-- Walk through a new account opening or product introduction process. This is often where there's sand in the gears.

In each of these reviews, include people who report directly to those at the line level doing the work. Have an open review session with this mixed group in order to get unfiltered information. Use this clearer view to identify the additional obstacles or needs that must be addressed to meet the vision and goals you have set out.

Just as important, use this data to identify what to stop doing. Which reports aren't needed? Which processes can be streamlined? Which IT hobbies should be stopped? How many labs does your team have or how many third-party fishing expeditions are being funded that don't address core business goals and issues? Part of being a great IT leader is discerning what should not be done. Don't just add to people's workloads.

As you're wrapping up your reviews, turn your attention to IT and risk governance. By now, you should have a clear perspective on where the problem areas are and where processes must be streamlined. Adjust IT governance with an eye toward ensuring problem areas (especially those associated with endemic quality issues) have ongoing oversight. And streamline the governance to match updated processes. Finally, review all governance for clear accountability.

Spend time observing your team and identifying weaknesses. While you can understand that everyone will have an excuse for why some problems weren't addressed previously, you will need to ascertain if they were really hamstrung or are just not effective leaders. Be careful about doing a wholesale replacement or just bringing in people who were loyal to you before. An outstanding leader is someone who can build another world-class team with a new set of team members. One of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Joe Gibbs, won the Super Bowl three times with three different quarterbacks.

Begin to address personnel weaknesses either by coaching and developing those people, or by bring in new or supplementary talent. This process will carry on after the first 90 days--you're never done here--but you need to get off to a good start.

So define a clear vision, get connected, and inspect. And you will be off to a great start in your new role or for the rest of 2012.

Jim Ditmore, the former CIO of Barclays Global Retail Bank, has worked in IT for more than 25 years and as a CIO or CTO for the last 15 years. You can read more about Jim's views on IT at Recipes for IT.

Nominate your company for the 2012 InformationWeek 500--our 24rd annual ranking of the nation's very best business technology innovators. Deadline is April 27. Organizations with $250 million or more in revenue may apply for the 2012 InformationWeek 500 now.

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