29 tips on what to do on the first day as a new CIO

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 9, 2022
29 CIOs share their insights on how to make the right impressions on day one as a new business technology leader

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Irish actor Pierce Brosnan was truly candid about the first day in the job of being James Bond: "You walk on to the set for the first time, and all eyes are on you…those fears, you don't want to screw it up," he said. CIOs may not be recognized by cocktail bar staff and Russian spies, but like Brosnan, they carry the weight of expectation on their first day in the role.

That expectation is as weighty as the mythical movie character role. According to the Digital Leadership Report, technology budgets have increased by 5%, and 50% of the business technology leaders responding to the Harvey Nash research said their market is set to be digitally transformed. Not only were the CIOs and CTOs reporting this, but CEOs too.

The Digital Leadership Report, says: 

There can be no doubt that the emergence of COVID-19 dramatically increased pressure on leaders to fast-track digitization... The pandemic has forced organizations to re-imagine the way they do business. 

Despite the anticipation that a being new CIO brings, what should a business technology leader's first moves be?  

Anna Barsby, Founder of Tessiant & Retail CIO:

Get to know your peer group, ensure you understand their challenges and opportunities, and then you'll know what your IT team can enable; lots of listening! Plus, don't compromise on your senior team.

Chris Tunnecliff, Director of IT & Strategy, Crawford & Company:

Get a damn good coach and learn how to be sympathetic to everyone's needs, but be realistic that they will seldom agree on joined-up priorities due to rewards being to their separate profit and loss.

Shanker Das, Interim CIO:

Listen hard and don't "Opine" on anything for the first three months. Nothing much will be as it appears at first sight and first contact. It is vital to establish the pulse, get an insight into the culture and understand internal dynamics. This instantly brings about a sense of familiarity so vital for a smooth transition into the organization.

Jonathan Neffgen, Chief Technology Officer at Generation Investment Management:

Get yourself a consigliere on the inside. I realize that looks a bit Mafia, but it was good advice given to me - you need a trusted lieutenant early on.

Madhu Bhabuta, Fractional CIO:

Use your first 100 days to really understand the people, issues and context.

Gabe Barrett, Former CIO of Abellio and founder of Otter Intelligence:

Take advantage of the "I'm new" period to ask all the: "why do you do it that way?" questions.

Charlotte Baldwin, Chief Information, Digital and Transformation Officer, Hospitality:

Identify key stakeholders both inside and outside the organization - you will probably have significant strategic partner relationships that you need to focus on to be able to deliver, plus a good look at the supply chain from end to end. The CFO relationship has been very key for me alongside the CMO and COO in the last few CIO /CTO roles.

Richard Williams, CIO European Bank of Reconstruction and Development:

Be acutely aware of cultural differences between geographies and understand the drivers for different areas - not everywhere is like the UK / US! Really try and understand how tech is viewed in the organization; what does digital mean to them? Don't ever start a sentence with, "What we did at XXXX was...." and don't subscribe to the 100-day plan concept.

Eileen Jennings Brown, Head of Technology, Wellcome Trust:

The shadow you cast is at its largest in the beginning. So act how you want to be remembered and be the leader that you want to have.

Ian Cohen, Chief Product & Information Officer at Acacium Group:

Take the time (and explain to your boss why you are taking time) to understand the situation and context - where your team and company are and "why". Then (assuming you can't get to them before you start) meet as many customers as you can to understand their perspectives on your situation and opportunities. 

Be clear on what you want your team/function to be. And then start reviewing your situation from "problems to be solved", starting with experiences to be changed rather than projects in a portfolio (they will always be a focus on those in the red)....and get great advice (coach /mentor).

Laura Dawson, CIO, London School of Economics:

Get strength beneath you, and don't over shadow it!

Trevor Hunt, CTO Advisory at Behind Every Cloud:

Deliver a SWOT analysis within 30 days.

James Thomas, CIO, Wellcome Trust:

Be clear on what your values and principles stand for; they define you and your integrity and, therefore, your shadow. Invest time equally, doing discovery within your new service and outside your new service, do not get sucked into spending too much time with your team. If you are joining an executive, then this is another team that needs prioritizing. The discovery of the top three business challenges by area is key and fits well with engaging with the executive.

Shaun Taylor, Co-founder of Tech Link Ukraine, Interim Chief Transformation Officer:

My initial focus is on alignment to business objectives; what are the current barriers to growth & performance as it's normally pretty easy to identify quick wins.

A recent example was margin erosion on contract renewals, I had the team quickly build a historic deal analysis and scoring capability in Salesforce/CPQ, and the CEO was an instant convert.

Giles Lindsay, Chief Technology Officer at Nimbla:

Asking insightful questions early on in the honeymoon period will be very useful to help you understand what is going on across the business as a whole.

Mark Harrison, Interim Transformation Director:

I like to "deliver" some value, which is probably slightly amplified by being interim for most of the last decade - that said it translates into permanent roles equally well. It can be something small, but enough to hang your hat on to and show peers, team or senior leadership that you can identify an issue and resolve it. Nothing better for helping build credibility than making and then keeping a "promise" (especially when the business value is clear).

Gerard McGovern, CIO Guide Dogs for the Blind Association:

Meet every single member of your team. It will take you a while, but giving everyone 30 minutes to get to know you (but it's really you getting to know them) will pay off in so many ways down the line.

Mat Mallett, Chief Digital Information Officer at UK Space Agency:

I would usually pull out the thorniest issues and present my findings back openly after 60-90 days and use the "I'm new, I don't understand why we do it like this?" This unearths the silent challenges and politics and quickly opens discussions and the quickest way to find who is your advocate for each "challenge".

John Court, Interim CIO:

  1. Understand the most pressing challenges and opportunities of each key business function and the role of tech to resolve, alleviate or deliver these.
  2. Risk assessment - in particular, identification of any areas requiring immediate attention
  3. Build the bridges with all key stakeholders, in particular HR and Finance - your best allies rather than worst enemies
  4. Identify quick wins - usually a cost opportunity, programme pause or a critical delivery

Malcolm Lambell, Interim CIO:

A good mentor is critical. It will be a lonely job. Take a really objective look at your team and decide who to keep.

Carl Stokes, Director at Digital Works Group:

Find your superstars early and do everything you can to gain their trust and support.

Chris Lord, Group CTO at Babcock International Group:

Getting people who are known to the org inside your tent, as it were, and being an enthusiastic supporter helps tremendously.

Frank Gibson, Interim Group CTO, The Economist:

When you are meeting with stakeholders, especially the rest of the C-Suite and the board, the following questions are powerful:

  1. What are your top 3 priorities?
  2. How can I help?
  3. What is the best way for me to communicate with you?

Andy Caddy, Chief Digital Officer, The Collective:

Go and meet the CFO and take time to understand their view of your function. It's super critical that they think you are credible and business focussed. They probably have a really good view of how IT is tracking and where the problems are. Plus, if you manage to hit it off with them, it will make things far easier in the long run when you need to get things approved.

Martin Carpenter, CIO, Synomics:

Go and talk to the people who interact with customers. Then go talk to the customers and ask for honest feedback about what's good and where the opportunities are. Use that to build customer-led transformation priorities.

Darren Coomer, Group CIO and Chief Operations Officer iptiQ:

Simply don't turn into a #%^*+. Many new executives suddenly change personalities, growing opinions on things they have no idea about and forgetting all the smart people who gave them opinions on things that got them promoted. There's a part of you they wanted in the boardroom. Don't leave it behind.

Mark Lockton-Goddard, CIO and CEO of embracent:

Dominic Mason suggests a mini audit, which Lockton-Goddard calls "emerging views" - keeps it high level and recognizes that you may have misunderstood issues or not got the full picture yet!

It's also good to remember that boards are full of authentic individuals being themselves but also working as a team to solve problems. Important to be part of that team by being yourself and getting to know your new teammates. 

Giles Offen, Group CDIO, Just Group plc:

  • Go and sit with the users of your systems to gain an understanding of their pain points and learn the business at the same time.

  • Meet with the executive team and ask them all to name three things they love about your function and three things they want to see improve. This will be really good feedback for your function when you pitch your strategy.

  • Remember the six-month rule. In the first six months, you are pretty much free to do what you want as none of this was your doing! You can generally make any changes that you want to. After six months, it's your capability, and the things you want to do will get questioned with more rigour.

Alan Hill, Former CIO of British Army, Director Strategic Solutions - Public Sector, Splunk:

Know your customer (internal and external); know your staff (try and speak to everyone - it will pay off when you have to make changes); know what services are mission-critical and sort them out quickly, if risky. Make sure your cyber defences are as good as possible; deliver something new that meets the internal or external customer need - to demonstrate that you are adding real value.  

Then take a day off!

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