A new CIO’s four biggest challenges and how to solve them

Strategy & Transformation

Photo of Joe Gilligan

Joe Gilligan

Consulting Associate and Community Leader EMEA LinkedIn

Stepping into the role of CIO has never been easy. Now, with performance increasingly contingent on digitisation and technology being woven into organisational strategy and culture, CIOs need to wear more hats than ever. This means the early days of their tenure are important – but tough – to get right.

At a recent virtual New-in-Role roundtable hosted by Telstra Purple, we spoke with 13 CIOs on how to make the most of their first year on the job, and best practices on navigating the trickiest parts.

Laying the right groundwork for relationships

Along with learning the idiosyncrasies of each organisation and team, how you start a new role will strongly influence your success. As an external hire, you tend to benefit from a fresh perspective, but you’ll be learning and building those relationships from scratch.

“You can do as much research as you like about a company before you join, but nine times out of 10, it will be vastly different to reality,” said one attendee. “You might receive incorrect information at the start and maybe later on, too. But keep questioning and meeting people, and you’ll eventually find the right ways to influence the organisation successfully.”

That means connecting with people at all levels – especially those outside of management positions – so that you get insights from people doing work on the ground.

How you become CIO has enormous impact on those relationships. If you’ve been promoted internally, you’ll already have deep understanding of the organisation and its culture – but resetting old relationships can be just as hard as building new ones. Likewise, re-joining a business demands all-new networking.

“When you come back into an organisation you used to work for, you need to do the networking process again,” said another attendee. “You can’t just pigeonhole yourself and stick to former peers.”

No matter how you step into the role of CIO, there’s also a chance you were chosen over one of your current direct reports. One CIO said it’s a common issue that underscores the importance of understanding each team member’s individual journey and career goals, including helping them develop and advance into other positions.

Resetting relationships with suppliers

Especially if you’re new to an organisation, it can sometimes feel like you’ve inherited supplier relationships and expectations that don’t fit with what you’ve planned.

The first step is usually understanding the lay of the land, for example simply sitting down to map suppliers and partners into key categories. Then, CIOs can begin to network with suppliers in the same way they would with internal colleagues.

“You can push and build up the team that you’ve got, and that includes the suppliers you work with,” said one CIO. “It’s also important to ask your suppliers what they think of you and where they see your business relationship in years from now, to get a true understanding of where both parties stand. Some suppliers just need a push to raise their standards to your expectations.”

Knowing how to find the right information

Even for long-time employees, the early days as a CIO can involve a scramble to chase down information and understand an organisation’s true needs – not just their stated ones.

The success of this endeavour is closely linked to relationship building, but it’s also a separate skill that CIOs need to continue refining throughout their career. Part of it depends on realising when you don’t have enough information – and being willing to hold off until you do.

“You get more credibility by waiting to fully understand the situation, than by making a knee-jerk decision,” said one CIO. “If your gut says something’s not right and you feel you need time to assess where it’s going to go – take it.”

It’s also critical to know where to look and what to look for. For some CIOs, this goes back to understanding the frontlines and those executing the work.

“It’s important to make sure you know where the power lies. Having crucial teams like the service desk on-side is absolutely essential. But you won’t know their importance unless you get on the ground and see.”

For another CIO, it’s important to “follow the money” and figure out who owns the budget and who understands it. “Those aren’t always the same people.”

Balancing the old with the new

Aside from networking, one of the most overarching challenges for a new CIO is balancing the status quo with the desire for change. The most literal manifestation of this puzzle is your own team.

While long-time employees can be vital sources of historic knowledge and cultural influence, charting your own course can require bringing on new skillsets or team members too. And it might be tempting – helpful, even – to bring in former colleagues.

Still, this needs to be done with restraint and sensitivity.

“If you have a new position that needs filling, by all means bring in someone to do it,” said one attendee. “But if there are people within your organisation who want to be there, grow with the organisation, and could be developed into that position, then bringing in one of your old colleagues may cause friction.”

This can easily begin to look like a CIO is creating an “entourage” and cause factions or resentment. By making sure you get endorsements internally first, you can avoid the sense of new hires being “your people”.

But the right mix of old and new isn’t just a challenge for building your team. It also applies to projects, processes, and even the wider culture of the organisation. In the early days of a CIO’s role, it can be hard to get a true gauge on your mandate and a company’s appetite for change.

Much of this will go back to the empathy and intellectual curiosity needed to build relationships, and to gather information about where a company’s been and where it’s trying to go.

However, one CIO had this to say when asked what she’d do differently in her next role: “Pick your battles carefully. If you’re thoughtful about this, it demonstrates how you’re going to lead and sets a good precedent.”

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