CIO role: Why the first 90 days are crucial

For new CIOs, the first three months on the job prove critical. Here's where Susan Snedaker, CIO for El Rio Health, suggests you focus your efforts
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CIOs must move past the 'IT guy' stereotype

Many organizations set 90 days as a timeframe in which specific goals should be achieved, or as a probationary period for new hires. But what is magical about 90 days? Why do we set that specific timeframe for success (or failure), and why is it important in the CIO role?

CIO role: Why the first 90 days matter

Imagine a boat leaving a port and sailing across the ocean. If the boat’s path is off course by just one degree when it leaves, after 90 days, it will be so far off course that it will never reach its intended destination. On the other hand, if the boat stays true to course early on, minor variations later in the journey can be course-corrected more easily.

The same concept applies to the first 90 days on any job – but it’s especially important when you’re taking on the CIO role.

Your first 90 days will determine whether you become a trusted senior executive in the organization or a technology manager who’s seen as merely “keeping the lights on” and fixing IT problems. This three-month window is the only time you can create this impression. If you fall down into the operational depths during this time, there is little chance you’ll be able to elevate yourself in the eyes of the organization and your peers in the coming months and years. Conversely, if you establish yourself in these three months as a senior leader with vision and strategy at the forefront, you will be elevating yourself to the level any CIO needs to operate at to be effective in an organization.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

The 90-day assessment

It’s critical that you perform your organizational assessment in the first 90 days, while your perspective remains fresh. After 90 days, you’ll begin to acclimate to the organization’s culture and norms and lose that newcomer’s objectivity. So instead of spending your first 90 days trying to get a lot of things done, focus on looking, listening, watching, and learning. Colleagues will likely advise you as a new executive to pursue a few “quick wins” and that’s certainly important, but don’t obsess on achieving significant results in the first 90 days.

The 90-day vision

You likely created a 90-day plan after accepting the job. That plan should reflect your vision, approach, and high-level objectives. However, any 90-day plan devised before starting the role is just a framework.

The purpose of the 90-day plan isn’t to have everything sorted out on Day 1, but rather to provide guidelines and milestones for you to achieve. For example, you might set a 30-day goal to meet with all the senior leaders in the organization. The specifics can be hammered out after you’ve had time to assess who the key leaders are and how to connect with them. Your second 30 days (30-60 days) might entail getting to know the mid-level leaders or spending more time with your second-in-command in the IT division. The plan will guide you; the details will evolve as your 90 days elapse.

[ For more on digital leadership, read Why digital transformation demands a change in leadership mindset. ]

90-day expectations

In your first 90 days, you will shape and inform the expectations of you and your IT department. At the same time, you’ll be setting expectations about how you operate, how you communicate, and what you expect from your peers, your organization, and your department.

Set the agenda in a dynamic and intelligent manner so you are seen as an active, engaged, and competent leader from Day 1.

The first 90 days are when initial impressions and expectations are created. Set the agenda in a dynamic and intelligent manner so you are seen as an active, engaged, and competent leader from Day 1. If you come out of the gate slowly or ineffectively – or worse, if you stumble badly, you’ll struggle to overcome that reputation. If you come out too aggressively, on the other hand, your peers will be wary and you’ll struggle to build trust. Either extreme will negatively impact your success trajectory.

The 90-day business and IT strategy

Finally, you’ll be assessing the organization’s existing business and IT strategies in your early days. Take full advantage of your outsider’s view by keeping notes on your observations about strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Is there strong business and IT alignment or are they operating in two separate universes or even at odds?

The first three months are critical in this regard because you’ll start out assessing both the organization and the IT division as an outsider, but you’ll gradually become an insider. This outsider-to-insider perspective can help you identify strong business and IT strategies that might later become less clear.

This timeframe is also your opportunity to establish yourself as a strategic thinker rather than a technician who is great at helping the CEO with her laptop or the admin with the A/V setup. While this may sound laughable, it’s not uncommon. The impression you want to make, even with operational “quick wins,” is that you’re a strategic thinker who will move the dial on digital transformation and key IT initiatives by aligning IT strategy with business objectives. Your first 90 days sets both the tone and the content for this ongoing dialogue.

Use each of your first 90 days as the precious gifts they are. Spend them wisely and you’ll be investing in your long-term success as CIO in your new organization.

[ Want more advice? Watch the on-demand webinar, The future of leading digital innovation: What's next, with Nancy Giordano, plus Red Hat's Margaret Dawson and IDC's Nancy Gohring. ]

Susan Snedaker is the Chief Information Officer for El Rio Health and a member of the ISACA Emerging Trends Working Group. She drives strategy for information technology, digital transformation, and population health initiatives to advance El Rio’s mission of providing comprehensive healthcare services for the Tucson community.