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Why a CIO's first 90 days are critical
Charlie Feld has spent decades in the IT trenches, in practice as the former CIO at Frito-Lay, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Delta Air Lines, and in a mentorship role today as founder and CEO of The Feld Group Institute, a leadership development firm for IT executives.
We asked Feld, who recently received the Leadership Award from the Dallas CIO Leadership Association, to share his thoughts on the current and future state of the CIO.
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): You’ve been drawn to the early years of the CIO tenure when there are many opportunities to make a big impact and develop a transformation strategy. What are some keys to making this time successful?
Charlie Feld: I see the CIO role as having three major priorities: One is to set the agenda and sell it. The other is to build a great team. And the third is to deliver with consistency.
In the first 60 to 90 days, the CIO has to take a snapshot of the IT landscape and give a historical lesson on not just where we are, but how we got there so people understand the reasons behind the complexity. This helps to develop a shared perspective, create a case for change, and usually paints the picture that the issues are not just an IT problem, but an IT and business problem.
From there, what needs to be done to innovate, transform the business, and modernize their departments or lines of business becomes evident. That’s the desired future vision. That picture of the current state, the history of how you got there, and a future vision helps you set and sell the new agenda up to the executive committee.
TEP: What are some of the common barriers standing in the way of a CIO’s ability to make an impact early on?
Feld: In the past, IT leaders have either been technical leaders – really understanding the engineering and architecture behind building great things – or a leader with the vision and ideas, but the inability to execute them very well. IT needs to be an unusual mix of both: You need the creative side because you need to be able to describe what’s possible, what innovation looks like, and how you can do innovation at scale and at speed. And you need the technical side to actually go about building it.
We’re just getting to the point where IT leaders are starting to possess both – the business savvy, the creativity and imagination, and the architecture and engineering skills. Sometimes, though, that doesn’t always come together in one person, and that’s where composing a great leadership team comes into play. You need to know your shortcomings, whether they’re creative or technical, and find people to fill those gaps. That’s the only way to know what the art of the possible can be.
TEP: As your career transitioned into mentorship, what skills have you seen are essential for IT leaders to be successful in their roles today?
Feld: The first is brushing up on your blind spots. If you’re a technical person, you don’t need more technical training. That trickles down to your team – knowing where their strengths and weaknesses are, and focusing on their blind spots.
You also need to think of your role as the Chief Integration Officer instead of Chief Information Officer because nobody sees the company the way the CIO sees the company. Every function in every line of business knows more about their function in their line of business than anyone else, but no one knows more about everything than the CIO. They see the seams between manufacturing, distribution, sales, and supply chain because they work with all of them. Because the job is a really big integration job, you need to understand the business and not only have a seat at the table, but have a point of view.
I think that’s going to get even more intense with the embedded internet. As more information flows from group to group, this unlocking of functional stovepipes becomes our job, connecting sales to manufacturing and finance. They need to see where the inventories are, place orders, get the pricing information.
So as we integrate and start to view our role as the Chief Integration Officer, these blind spots and these holes need to be filled by systems thinkers and people that can really present it in business terms to the business and in technical terms to the development teams. That’s where you truly need both the creative side for innovation and engineering side for scale.
TEP: If you could give one piece of leadership advice that you’ve learned over your career, what would it be?
Feld: I would say show up. A good leader shows up and really engages. Too many people get caught up in spending too much time with vendors or consultants instead of their business peers and their IT teams. If you end up in your office taking meetings with vendors or out at networking events or analyst conferences too much, you’re not involved in your own department nor are you building relationships with your business peers or the executive team. You’ve got to get engaged in a balanced way—internally and externally, with the business and your IT department. Learn to manage your calendar to be in the trenches with the people, from both the business and IT, because they matter the most as your teammates on this journey.