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3 Tips for Incoming IT Leaders

Veteran CIOs offer advice on how to hit the ground running.

by / February 27, 2015
Joe Panora, former director, Division of Enterprise Information Services, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Jessica Mulholland

CIOs in government have a short window to make a lasting impact – and even less time to build a positive reputation. So how they handle their first few months on the job sets the tone for the rest of their tenure.

This week, a panel of veteran CIOs offered advice for new IT leaders on making a smooth transition into the job at the California Public Sector CIO Academy in Sacramento. In the wake of a November 2014 general election which produced 11 new governors and triggered turnover among state constitutional officers and mayors, their timing couldn’t have been better. As new administrations settle in, many of them will be choosing new technology teams.

For this new class of incoming CIOs, here are some tips for hitting the ground running.

1. Move quickly, but not recklessly

The clock is ticking as soon as a new CIO walks in the door, and a wide range of stakeholders are watching and forming opinions. Look for small projects that can be quick wins, or break bigger projects into smaller pieces.

“You’re on trial during your first six months and at the end, there’s a verdict,” said Jan Ross, CIO of the California State Treasurer’s Office. “You need to get things done fast.”

But fast doesn’t mean rash, added Joe Panora, who until his December retirement was CIO for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “The worst thing you can do is take on a huge project when you first come in and then fail. The perception will stay with you forever.”

2. Hire carefully and invest in your staff

Although you’re under pressure to show results, don’t take shortcuts in the hiring process. This is one place where caution pays off.

“Look at your team as a whole and see the gaps,” Panora said. “You can’t afford to make a bad decision. It’s expensive and disruptive.”

Once you’ve built the team you need, take care of them. Take them to lunch, learn something about them. Also give them meaningful responsibilities and let them make decisions.

“One of your biggest tasks is to develop the next generation of leaders,” Panora said. “It’s one of your responsibilities as a public servant.”

3. Build relationships – lots of them

One message that came through loud and clear from panelists is the importance of relationships. CIOs can’t succeed on their own. The job often comes with limited authority and buying power. To make an impact, you’ll need support from policymakers, agency secretaries, program managers, budget officers and others.

“Relationships are the crux of it all,” said Ross. “You create a culture around yourself with the people you work for and the people who work for you.”

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Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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