Staying afloat in a new job

You may feel as if you can walk on water when you start a new job. Planning can ensure that you don't go under.

You may feel as if you can walk on water when you start a new job. Planning can ensure that you don't go under.

Succession planning is an uncertain art, and there will, inevitably, be times when the departure of a head of IT is not a happy event. But what should the newly-appointed incoming head of IT do to ensure a smooth and successful transition into the new regime?

According to one head of IT who recently took over an IT department in unhappy circumstances and wishes to remain anonymous, the first thing is to find out what you are letting yourself in for - preferably before you take the job.

"Find out as much as you can about the company; the last head of IT; the business managers; the projects and their managers; where the power is and who will be interviewing you," he advises. Consider the suppliers the firm uses and the services they deliver. Are the suppliers financially sound? Does the firm you are joining view any of its contracts with existing suppliers as creating operational difficulties or not providing value for money?

Make sure you know why you want this challenge - it is not for the faint-hearted or for anyone who does not have complete confidence in their own abilities.

You can find out a great deal about the organisation before you join it, not least from searching the Internet.

Forewarned is forearmed. There may be some jobs where the situation is so dire that it is beyond saving. If, however, you think it is salvageable, and you are appointed to do so, then there are some ground rules to bear in mind.

The first is, get stuck in fast - as fast as possible. Perhaps even before you formally take over. "I worked quite close to my new job, so even before I left my old job I started to get involved," he says. "I came along to meetings, established communications and introduced myself." He also engaged external consultants to report on the situation, with the co-operation of his new employers, but before he arrived at his new desk. "The consultants reported what the issues were, which gave me an agenda," he says.

But if you take this approach make sure the consultants hand over the information they gather either before or at the point when you take up the reins. They should not be involved once you are in control.

The consultants did more than provide an objective, neutral information-gathering and problem-spotting report. They also, most significantly, helped to ease the transition to the new regime for the IT staff.

The report produced by the consultants is a useful discussion tool, allowing subjects to be discussed without confrontation. "The staff took out their anger on the consultants," says the new head of IT.

Internal politics and staff morale will, inevitably, be part of the territory in taking over a job where the last occupier left unhappily. Some staff will have been his fans, some definitely not. The incomer needs to know who, and what, and most of all, why. He must also remember that although business management may regard him as a knight in shining armour to save the day, the IT department, which had its own loyalties, may not be as unanimous in their acclaim. Winning them over is a key task, as they may not realise what precipitated their former leader's departure.

One key player that the new incomer will need to sort out - one way or the other - is whoever was running the department in the gap between the departure of the old head and the arrival of the new appointee. If this was an external, professional interim manager there may be less of an issue than if the post was covered by an existing member of staff, who may well have hoped that he or she would take over permanently. An employee in this position may not take kindly to being ousted by the new arrival. The new incumbent will have to win this person over, or get rid of him.

Operating with the blessing of a relieved business management can be a heady experience. "I can do no wrong," says the incomer, well aware that such a degree of confidence can prove dangerous. A hero who disappoints against buoyant expectations is vulnerable.

On the other hand there may be a problem of trust. If a business has had a bad experience in the past it may take a while to feel completely confident in the new incumbent. Achieving some early wins that deliver clear business benefits is a huge advantage. Try to identify these before you take up the post, then make sure you deliver. Once you demonstrate your worth the business will trust you.

"It's the two envelope scenario," he says. "You arrive to find two envelopes. One says, 'Open if you hit problems in the first six months'. Inside it says, 'Remember, you walk on water'. The other says, 'Open if you hit problems in the second six months'. It says, 'Refresh your cv'."

Six to fix for success in a new job
Christopher Young, managing director at IT director mentoring group Impact, offers directions for a new head of IT:
  • Understand how IT can benefit the business strategy of your new company - is it being used to maximum effect to do so?

  • Create or ensure a stable, scalable infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth and capacity to deliver

  • Understand how the business measures IT's contribution

  • Check out the relationship between business and IT. IT may have a strong culture, but it could be the wrong one for the business. Is IT business-focused, does IT think it is business-focused and does the business think it is? The answers to these questions may differ

  • Assess your team and their skills, and ensure you have the capabilities you need. You have to work closely with people to work this out, but you must then be able to leave them running independently - if they cannot, replace them. Within 100 days you should know who will survive and who will not

  • Sort out your sourcing costs and strategy so that you have a clear rationale for how you source IT to meet business needs.

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