I took my first job as a CIO when I started here at Miami University in Southwest Ohio in late 2018. It was a return to public higher education after over a decade at a private institution, and it was an opportunity to spread my wings and to challenge myself with new experiences.
Little did I know that I’d barely finish my first year in my new role before we’d transition to dealing with COVID-19. As I prepared for my new role, my mentors and friends had told me that things usually became easier after that first year – I’d have critical contacts and allies, I’d have a feeling for how my new organization did things, and I’d be ready to start taking really strategic steps forward with that knowledge.
Instead, we entered a period that put new strains and stresses on institutions, on organizations, on teams, and on individuals. The foundation I had built remained useful, but I had to find different ways to move us forward than I had expected to use even a few weeks before.
So what did I learn?
First, that a new CIO’s listening tour remains a critical part of getting to know a new organization. The simple act of showing up – and yes, I mean going to them, not inviting (or worse, summoning) them to your office, listening and taking notes, then asking questions – let me build ties.
Coming back again, following through, and making both a habit helped me build trust. One of my regular visits said, “You came back!? I didn’t expect you to!” with surprise on our second meeting. At the same time, that round of listening provided me with a long list of additional people I needed to talk to so I could get a full view of my new institution.
The second lesson I learned delighted me. I found that I was able to continue to be authentically me. I’ve seen leaders who have lost parts of themselves to the role, and I wanted to make sure that my public self would continue to be who I am, not just a brand or image. Remaining true to myself has allowed me to be whole in ways that are critical for me as a leader and as an individual.
My caution to new leaders is to remember to hold up the mirror to yourself as you take on your new role. The stresses and challenges can make it easy to lose yourself to the job, and while that may feel like momentary success, it is likely to lead to failure in the long term.
Third, switching institutions reminded me of an important lesson: you’ll need to figure out how your organization builds support for efforts and strategic goals. Every organization, and often each level in an organization, tends to have its own unspoken rules and habits.
You may need to form coalitions, you may need critical thought leaders with informal or formal power, or you may need something else unique to your situation. What’s likely to be true regardless of where you are is that your habits and assumptions will need to be adjusted. Failure to identify those assumptions and to update them can easily stop you cold!
There are so many more lessons to share, but I’ll leave you with a closing thought. If you’re considering a CIO position, I encourage you to find mentors, community, and friends to advise you, to think about how you’ll get to know your organization and build trust, and most importantly: to stay true to yourself. It’s a job that’s worth doing, and while the challenges can be significant, you can make a real difference.