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Many new CIOs make the same mistake. They’ve just been hired into their new position and have a mandate from those who did the hiring—the board, the CEO, an executive search committee—to “shake things up.” They’ve been told in interview after interview that IT needs to get better connected with the culture of the company and that IT needs to change in order to meet the evolving business needs of the company.

Executive Summary

For a newly hired CIO, taking the time to understand the company’s culture before pulling a lot of triggers will pay dividends over time and will contribute in no small way to accomplishing the core mission of IT—planning, executing, delivering and innovating, says X by 2’s Frank Petersmark.

As the new CIO your job is to make that happen, and as such your first course of action is to focus on the technology, the projects and the people in IT as a way to assess the current state and develop a go-forward plan. But as logical as this may sound, it’s a recipe for a suboptimal start to your new tenure as CIO at the company.

That’s not to say that the technology does not matter or that the projects and people are not important. Of course they are. But in the context of laying the proper foundation for long-term CIO and IT success, they are tactical issues that often get in the way of focusing on the one strategic issue that will enable everything else to fall into place: fully and completely understanding the culture of the company you have just joined.

This is no easy task because it requires a great deal of listening—something that often seems counterintuitive to new CIOs focused on actionable accomplishments that demonstrate intent and purpose.

More often than not, just listening goes against most everything CIOs have been rewarded for throughout their IT careers. They are CIOs because they’ve demonstrated over time that they know how to lead and manage in a way that get things done.

But that’s an instinct new CIOs have to guard against, or at least keep in the background, as they focus on understanding the cultural tides and eddies of their new company. And as any field anthropologist would tell you, the best way to understand the culture of a newly observed social group is to listen and watch in order to find the individuals from whom the others take their cultural cues. Be sure to take a good look around; don’t just assume it is the CEO or somebody else at the executive level. The people you’re looking for manage to get things done despite political, bureaucratic and other obstacles—and they do it without ruffling cultural feathers. Middle management is often a good place to look for such people.

To be sure, this is something that requires a conscious, consistent effort on the part of newly hired CIOs. Why? Because it’s the soft part of the job that often gets lost or lowered on the priority list as the IT platforms are burning and customers are clamoring. But developing understanding is well worth the investment. Nothing begins to build trust, credibility and good will like making the effort required to really understand what makes the company tick—and by that I mean the behaviors, practices and boundaries for what is acceptable and appropriate at the company and what is not.

Nothing begins to build trust, credibility and good will like making the effort required to really understand what makes the company tick—and by that I mean the behaviors, practices and boundaries for what is acceptable and appropriate at the company and what is not.

There may well be people in IT who understand all of this, or it may be the case that the former leaders of the IT division never considered such things important enough to spend time on in light of more pressing and practical issues. If there are people in IT who understand the culture of the company, seek them out as those who can help put the division back on the road to being a fully integrated and valuable part of the company.

And here’s the real secret sauce to all of this: Taking the time to understand the culture of your new company before pulling a lot of triggers will pay dividends over time and will contribute in no small way to accomplishing the core mission of IT—planning, executing, delivering and innovating. When you understand the culture of the company, you understand its core values, those things that are collectively important and can never be violated.

Once you understand what those values are and how they’re used at the company to inform and modify behaviors and decision-making, the whole IT approach becomes a lot easier. Things like planning and budgeting can be closely aligned with the kinds of initiatives the company values most, making it much easier to get things approved and resourced.

Here’s an example. When I was a newly appointed CIO, I was completely focused on fixing things—it’s my nature—and as a result I didn’t take the time I needed to better understand how some of the decisions I was making fit into the cultural context of the company. As a result, my decisions didn’t always align well with what was acceptable in the company, and I learned a hard and painful lesson.

As part of an IT transformation, I recommended and subsequently negotiated a large outsourcing deal that impacted most of the existing IT department. At the time I was congratulated for thinking creatively and acting decisively, in the abstract good characteristics to demonstrate. However, in practice, the company was just not culturally accepting of the kinds of process and relationship changes that outsourcing brought. These changes created a more structured and financially efficient IT department, but they did not lead to getting the work done any more effectively for reasons completely unrelated to quantifiable things like budget, resources and priorities.

Instead, the outsourcing was problematic because I failed to appreciate how some of these changes violated the cultural norms of the company. Now, it might have been fine to introduce such changes incrementally over time so that they could be absorbed and digested, but the big bang of outsourcing did not allow for that. The lesson I learned is that while a company’s culture can be changed or modified, it takes time—and sometimes lots of it.

As a famous “business guru” once said: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” That quote is from Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” circa 1532. Lesson learned.

Contributor

Frank Petersmark, Tabula Rasa Consulting, LLC

Frank Petersmark PhD is an independent consultant for Tabula Rasa Consulting, LLC. Frank, who formerly served as CIO at Amerisure and as CIO Advocate at X by 2, officially takes on his new role at Tabula Rasa in May 2015. Reach Frank at fpetersmark@gmail.com.