“For years, the CIO was the C-level executive with the shortest or near shortest average tenure,” writes Peter High in the introduction to “The CIO’s First 100 Days,” a collection of articles he has written for Forbes. “It was easy to choose the CIO as a scapegoat,” continues High, “if things were amiss within the company generally or within IT more specifically. Given the fact that so much that is managed by the IT leader can be esoteric in the minds of other business executives within the company, it is essential to push hard in one’s first 100 days to build relationships, to communicate a plan, and to track progress against that plan.”

A One-Time-Only Opportunity: Q&A with Peter HighHigh is the president of Metis Strategy, a CIO advisory firm that he founded in 2001. In addition to his regular column at Forbes.com, he is the author of two books, World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Implementing World Class IT Strategy: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation (Jossey-Bass, September 2014). He also has written for the Wall Street Journal, CIO magazine, CIO Insight, Information Week, and other publications. Since 2008, he has moderated a podcast entitled “The Forum on World Class IT” (www.forumonworldclassit.com), which features a wide array of IT practitioners and thought leaders.

Of the nearly 200 in-depth interviews with IT leaders High has conducted in the past several years, some 20 have focused on CIOs’ approaches in their first three months on the job. “We have one chance to make a first impression,” writes High. He recently spoke with CIO Straight Talk Editor-in-Chief Paul Hemp and Managing Editor Ritesh Garg about how to make the most of those first impressions.

Why were you interested in learning about CIOs’ first 100 days?

In our consulting practice, over half of the time, our first engagement with a company will be a collaboration with a CIO at the beginning of his or her journey, as we look at how their new teams compare to what we call “world class IT” organizations. It’s very important to do so at the start of the journey, because after 100 days, any problem that you have not identified up to that point is your problem — even if it results from the actions of your predecessor. It’s really important to have an eyes-wide-open perspective: How do I augment this department’s strengths, where is it weak, where do we have to prioritize funds and people and activities to improve in areas where there have been issues?

Everyone will have “the first 100 days” at some point in their career, and it can happen multiple times in the same company if one is promoted from within. This is a widely shared experience, and I think it’s possible to identify a few universal principles that have made some executives very successful.

So there is a recurring pattern that you’ve observed in CIOs’ first months on the job?

The first month is typically a learning period. When I say learning, I mean primarily learning the culture of the organization, assuming you have been hired from outside and are new to it. What worked in your last job is not necessarily going to work in the new job. You need to be humble enough to recognize that the great processes you have developed, the great things you have done, the way you manage people, all of these need to be tuned to the culture of the organization you have joined. Is this a process-heavy organization or a process-light one? Is it metrics-driven or does it tend not to measure itself well? Is this a very hierarchical organization or very collegial? Is it political? Where does the power lie? How do people outside of IT best take tough messages?

Of course, those promoted from within an organization will understand the cultural nuances. But they may still need to spend time up front learning and understanding their new role and how things look from this new position. They are likely to meet more frequently with a broad array of other leaders in the company than they did in the past.

Regardless of how they came to the job, it is important for new CIOs to spend a lot of time going out and meeting people in their first month. They should go deep into the organization and ask for good, solid, honest feedback, pushing the team to be as open and candid as possible. Also important are meetings with constituents outside of IT, both peers and superiors, to better understand where IT has met expectations, where it has exceeded expectations, and where it has had underwhelming performance. Similarly, meetings with external partners can help in understanding areas for improvement.

During the learning phase it’s important to listen well but also to draw your own conclusions. One of my favorite lessons comes from my interview with Intel’s Kim Stevenson. During this learning period, she found  that people in the company were relatively satisfied with IT. But she came to the conclusion that they were not judging IT with the right criteria, so she rejected the feedback and described to her team the greater level of value IT needed to deliver. Doing that — basicallysetting the bar higher for herself —required some significant chutzpah.

What happens in the second month?

The second month is about planning. This is when the IT leader needs to formulate his or her new strategy, balancing moving forward with a respect for what’s been done in the past. There needs to be continuity, even if you are a leader who is replacing somebody who has been fired. The vast number of people on your team will be holdovers who continue to work for the organization.

The plan should provide an overview of the state of the IT organization: Here are the things we have done well. Here are the things we are going to be capitalizing on. Here are the strategic threats we will continue to face. Here are some new things that we are going to be doing. Here are the major new strategic objectives that we will put in place. I think it is very important — this is what my recent book is all about — to create a strategy for IT, to have it documented in a way that is understandable not only to people in IT, but to those outside it, even your vendor community, so that everyone can line up behind the strategy and push in the same direction.

By the end of the second month you should have such a plan, with a few simple objectives, articulated in words that people can understand and maybe even put to memory. The plan should help every member of the IT team see how the specific projects they work on connect to the bigger picture.

It’s probably in the second month that you’re meeting with the CEO and perhaps with your company’s board of directors to present a plan and the path forward.

Do you typically see CIOs make the plan a document that people at all levels of the organization and even outside partners can refer to?

It’s critically important to broadcast the plan far and wide with clarity. Something that is held close to the vest is open to misinterpretation. Communicating widely and doing it in clear, precise, and simple language is critical not only the first time you develop a strategy for IT. To use Kim Stevenson as an example again, she has produced what she refers to as the IT annual report, essentially mirroring Intel’s annual report. She talks about the past year, she talks about successes and challenges, she talks about areas of opportunity. She creates a plan for the next year and articulates it in very clear English. This way, people in headquarters who sit next to you and people maybe 10,000 miles away are going to have a common understanding of the plan.

So you learn in the first month and plan in the second. What is the third month about?

The third month is all about execution. Of course, you don’t have to wait for the third month to begin making things happen. Even in the first and second months, while you’re studying the organization, you should try to achieve some quick wins, things that you can execute in a matter of weeks.

A good friend of mine is a CIO who had one of the greatest ideas for the first 100 days. In his first two weeks with the organization, when he met with his peers and superiors, he asked them what one critical piece of information would allow them to make better decisions if they could get it on a regular basis. After he collected all the answers, he went back to his IT team and said, “Okay, we have these 24 different requests from very important people across the organization. How many of these do we have the data that would allow us to generate reports today?” To his pleasant surprise, half of them took only a few hours of work to produce. Not days, weeks, months – just hours. So in the first month, he delivered to most of his fellow senior executives new information and new reports that had them making better decisions. Talk about first impressions!

Whatever the type of action, it really is important in the early days to start doing some things. Part of this will usually involve continuing to move ahead on some of the projects that are already in place. At the same time, the action may be canceling some of those. You may be getting inputs in the first couple of months that lead you to the conclusion that some current IT projects are not what they were supposed to be. They are over budget, they are overextended. The value won’t be created where it was anticipated. Or maybe they simply no longer connect to the strategic priorities of IT or the broader organization. Canceling projects sends a very important message; it speaks to a certain level of responsibility. If the rationale behind the cancellation is well articulated inside and outside of IT, that can breed a lot of respect from leaders across the organization. Of course, new projects and new ideas are also important.

It’s a good idea for the new CIO to put in place a dashboard of some sort to be able to report where progress is being made, where it is not, and what corrected action is recommended. That is a critical part of the execution stage as well.

What are some of the mistakes you have seen that cause CIOs to get off the track in these crucial first 100 days?

One mistake we sometimes see is that great scorecards are developed that articulate where IT stands, but there is no individual tasked with moving the ball forward on activities. The buck doesn’t stop with anyone. So you come back in six months or twelve months and very little progress has been made. It’s important to divide the leadership team up and assign specific responsibilities to specific individuals.

Instituting too many metrics too quickly is another potential recipe for disaster. If you go from a no-metric environment and begin to institute too many sticks and not enough carrots, that may be rejected by your team. Speed is also very important. Not getting to execution quickly enough, not proving value quickly enough in those first 100 days and in the following months, is another recipe for disaster.

Maybe the most crucial mistake I’ve seen people make in the first 100 days is not investing enough time in building relationships. It is always especially sad when incredibly smart and successful people who have so much to give and actually perform the fundamentals of their job extraordinary well are let go because they have not taken the time to do the softer things – getting to know people, collaborating with peers, networking internally and externally.

A related mistake is failing to celebrate successes and to market broadly the work of IT. A lot of CIOs actually do great things, but no one knows about it. There should be a little bit of P.T. Barnum in every CIO: When something good happens, it gets celebrated, not just in small groups but in high-profile communications outside of IT. When good things are done, they need to be recognized by all IT’s stakeholders and partners.

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)