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Tips for Incoming Chief Information Officers

Congratulations on your new role as chief information officer (CIO), a challenging but invigorating job. My time as North Carolina’s Secretary and State CIO was particularly rewarding, because I saw how the work that public sector employees do really matters in providing for the welfare of citizens. Here are some things that can help in the early stages of your tenure and beyond.

In the beginning

From the outset, adapt to your new role by rallying around a mission that matters, listening before you lead. The mission of serving the public, by delivering technology services that provide an improved experience for citizens, is at the heart of your role. Focus on this mission and leave party politics to your policy staff.

Understand that the people you lead are in public service because they want a meaningful mission. Help them see it — but first, take time to get to know them, listen to them and learn from them. In my first few days, I shook hands with hundreds of people to thank them and tell them I know what they do is important. These teammates helped me learn what public service was all about.

Slow down to go fast

By the time you’ve been in your role for several months, fully align your team to your efforts by uniting around your defined purpose, building the workforce you need and achieving innovative and transformational results. To get there, you should slow down to go fast. That is, set aside time and energy to develop a budget, road map and strategy.

When I started as CIO, I quickly learned that many systems were underfunded and broken. Early on, a fire broke out in a server closet in the Governor’s Office, which symbolically underscored just how broken our state IT was. Fortunately, we were able to describe to the governor and general assembly the efforts required to fix and modernize the IT environment, and within six months, we had secured more than $60 million in a special IT reserve fund that covered a portfolio of 11 programs. This became the initial road map of priorities for our team.

We also needed a more encompassing strategy to anchor our IT professionals and develop a shared vision. That strategy was as easy as ABC: accelerate our consumer focus, balance innovation and risk, and collaborate as “One IT.”

Executing your purpose

Collaborating as One IT allowed us to provide efficient and effective IT services focused on the citizen rather than the technology. This started to transform the purpose of IT, as our people saw that by working together, we could share people, processes and tools to bring better results faster to the citizens.

We also needed new leadership to develop a workforce that could carry out our newfound citizen-focused purpose. After about a year, my direct reports had been repurposed or replaced. We needed leaders who understood how to collaborate, and we needed diversity and inclusion of thought to more accurately reflect the citizens we served.

For example, in North Carolina, the proportion of women in the tech sector (35.6%) is the highest of any state. Our new leadership was adjusted to reflect this balance. In addition, we had fewer than 12 employees under the age of 35. That number has grown steadily as we focused on changing hiring practices and policies to allow new thinking from millennials into the agency.

To achieve real results aligned with our citizen-focused purpose, we had to learn new things and find new ways to solve problems. We created the North Carolina Innovation Center (iCenter), which helped find new ways to deliver technology while saving millions of dollars on new systems. We also launched Digital Commons — a redesign of the state’s main digital services portal — and created a digital services team.

This team delivered a standard look and feel experience for citizens built on a common content management system using open-source platforms. The digital services team is now expanding the transformation and enhancing services with new transaction models. The improvements have resulted in a truly transformational experience for the citizens of North Carolina.

Today, the IT industry is still experiencing unprecedented change. Your list of priorities will only grow, but your time in office is limited. Once your IT agenda takes shape, you have three years, per the national CIO average, to leave your mark for your successor. It may be a challenging journey, but by taking these steps, aligning your vision with business, and staying focused on the mission of public serving, it can be a truly satisfying experience.

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Chris Estes is the Finance, Operations & Technology Leader for the U.S. SLED at EY. He served as North Carolina’s Secretary and Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Department of Information Technology. As a member of the governor’s cabinet, he provided oversight of information systems projects and managed IT services for state agencies, local governments and schools. He was an Executive Committee Director for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). He also chaired NASCIO’s National Innovation Community. He is a recipient of the North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine and several CIO of the Year awards.

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