CIOs on the move

When Joe Eckroth moved from the top tech spot at toy maker Mattel to the CIO post at New Century Financial a year ago, he wanted to play fair with his new employees from the start. He was open about his game plan with staffers, some of whom were unsettled by the change in leadership. But Eckroth didn't let his concern for them stop him from pushing his agenda forward. He honestly stated his belief in outsourcing, for example, even though he knew it might further disturb some employees.

"You have to be empathetic to the people working for you," he says, but "you can't fear driving change, because that's part of why you were brought in."

That delicate, deliberate balance is essential for succeeding in a new job.

CIOs who moved last year from one company to another say success comes from understanding the distinct needs of your new organization and knowing how to move it forward, while acknowledging that you're the new kid on the block.

And that applies whether you move within your industry or into a new one. "At the end of the day, a CIO's role is more about business than technology, so a good CIO will focus attention on the business first, no matter what sector it is," says Gopal Khanna, who last year moved from his CIO job at the U.S. Peace Corps to CIO for the state of Minnesota.

CIOs say they find the same challenges, issues and overriding goal -- to use technology to drive business results -- from company to company. Nonetheless, they also find the CIO job different from one organization to the next -- even if it's in the same sector. Cultures, missions and budgets, which vary tremendously, all shape the work. Here are some tips and lessons freshly learned by CIOs on the move:

CIOs say it's crucial to first learn the business by meeting with every-one you can. Those who move into a new industry should also learn the dynamics of that sector by reading trade publications, studying industry regulations and finding coaches among peers.

Last year, Deborah Lipscomb, who was CIO at Carlson Restaurants Worldwide in Texas, became senior vice president and CIO at ClubCorp, which owns and operates country clubs. Although both are hospitality companies, IT's strategic role was different in each, she says. "The first thing I had to do was understand their business, figure out what they were trying to accomplish, how technology fits in with those objectives and how IT performed in the past," Lipscomb says.

This process required several passes. First, Lipscomb met with people to get to know them, then she met with them again to learn their business and goals, and finally, she started attending their meetings.

Before he started at New Century, a real estate investment trust and mortgage finance company, Eckroth called a meeting with 60 or so senior-level IT people. He answered questions about his family, work style and management priorities during the three-hour session.

Eckroth acknowledges that the meeting didn't lower all barriers to the "new guy." But "I got the walls broken down to a much lower height," he says. "I built credibility to get a start working with these people."

Learning a company's culture and business needs is an ongoing process, but as a new CIO, you can't spend too much time exclusively immersed in that. You'll need to come up with a strategic plan as the honeymoon phase ends. "Somewhere [from] 90 to 120 days is the right time to start commenting on which direction to go," says Jeff Balagna, executive vice president and chief information and customer technology officer at Carlson Companies. "People expect results, and if a year goes by and they haven't heard from you, they suspect you don't have a vision."

Balagna, who was previously CIO at Medtronic, says he promised his new company's management team during his first week on the job that he'd get back to them with a strategy in three months -- and he met that self-imposed deadline.

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