5 Tips for Surviving Your First Year as a CIO

A sophomore CIO from America's second most populous county reflects on what it takes to integrate people, government and technology.

by Simona Rollinson / May 15, 2015

In April, I completed my first year as CIO of Cook County, Ill. -- the second most populous county in the nation. Prior to assuming my current role, I had spent my entire career in the private sector. When I arrived, I quickly discovered my job would be similar in some ways, but different in others. I encountered a number of challenges I hadn’t anticipated; meanwhile, some challenges I had expected didn’t materialize.

As I look back on my first year, I wanted to share some of what I found. Here are five big things I learned. 

1. Strategy is easy, but execution is harder

The nature of appropriations, the procurement cycle and running multiyear projects with one-year budgets presents a unique set of challenges. To get around these issues, you have to create a drumbeat of regular financial and project management reporting. Within 60 days of my appointment, we consolidated the Project Management Office (PMO) under a high-ranking and experienced deputy who brought invaluable experience in organizational structure, processes and priorities. Portfolio and project management are crucial when the business model is diverse and you are confronted daily with competing priorities. Another key ingredient is having strong support from the procurement and budget offices. I was fortunate to learn from the best — savvy professionals with years of experience and a deep understanding of government.

2. Relationships rule

Because Cook County has numerous elected officials, bureaus, departments and offices under the umbrella of its government, resolving both large- and small-scale issues requires reaching across boundaries. Buy-in is important for every project and across all levels, from directors down to the employees who will be using these systems. To operate effectively, I’ve learned to encourage collaboration from the beginning of any project. It’s important to communicate frequently and clearly, and to listen carefully to what everyone has to say. Trust and confidence in a new CIO don’t come overnight. How you handle conflict and accept responsibility for shortcomings is also key. The old saying that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” is never truer than it is in government.

3. Innovate in policy rather than technology

The memorandum of agreement (MOA) for an integrated justice system is one of the biggest achievements of my tenure to date. Within 120 days of my coming to the county, the MOA was negotiated and signed by the key stakeholders: the chief judge, public defender, sheriff, clerk of the circuit court and state’s attorney. We are about to bring a contract for a transformational system that will unite separately elected officials under a single, unified solution — vastly improving operational efficiency and the accuracy of records. The improvements in operations that a collaborative, shared system like this can provide are tremendous, but it would have been impossible without that policy sea change. Having a laser focus on what’s important counts for a lot. Similar successes in our Acceptable Use Policy and a new information security ordinance have driven home the point that policy is as much the place for innovation as development or design. 

4. The pace is slower — look for small wins

Exceeding data center uptime goals and network stability may not generate headlines, but being able to show small victories builds confidence in your department. This confidence creates a foundation on which you can build. Celebrating the small victories does too. Employees have to know that any contribution exceeding expectations is valued. 

5. It’s not about the technology; it’s about the people

Hiring, retaining and motivating great employees is the most crucial task for a CIO anywhere. There are headwinds in government, so choosing wisely and evaluating motivation are paramount. And yes, emotional intelligence really matters, particularly when you don’t operate in a controlled environment. It’s especially important to find boundary spanners — individuals who not only unite different parts of your internal organization, but also can cross boundaries to reach external entities. You need employees who can connect concepts like return on investment with policy, or vendor management with accounts payable. You need people who can elevate the organization from within and who demonstrate continuous improvement. 
I envision the Cook County Bureau of Technology as operating at its finest is when it’s modernizing, collaborating, sharing services and propagating innovation. Modernization for us involves upgrading infrastructure; bringing in smart, sustainable technologies; and improving in vital areas such as security and disaster recovery. Shared services and collaboration offer much more than just economies of scale; we can achieve great things when we think holistically. Working together creates possibilities that exponentially improve the services we offer. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle directs us to “innovate, collaborate, elevate” — concepts that the Cook County Bureau of Technology wholeheartedly supports.
Simona Rollinson is the CIO of Cook County, Illinois.
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