Three pointers for incoming CIOs

Commentary: North Carolina's former state chief information officer, Chris Estes, says the CIO role is a big job, but tells incoming officials they are not alone.
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Congratulations on your new appointment to state CIO. If you are joining with a new governor, it’s an exciting time. All the long hours campaigning first lead to the inauguration and swearing in of the governor and now you, the new state CIO, you have a big job ahead. I know because I’ve been there.

In North Carolina, I was a member of the governor-elect’s transition team and later appointed state CIO, a position I held for three years. Here are a few pointers from my experience:

Rally around a mission that matters

The new cabinet will be very excited to get going and make a difference. I remember the enthusiasm Gov. Pat McCrory created in establishing a “mission that matters” and “working as a team” mandates in North Carolina. This was my first government job and I found the public sector very rewarding because the work state employees perform really matters in providing for citizen welfare.


It is this common purpose that you can share with newly appointed public sector leadership in the state. As the state’s IT leader you are focusing on technology and the citizen experience across multiple lines of business, sometimes under the governor’s authority and sometimes lead by a separate elected official.

But IT leaders can ride outside the normal party politics — let policy staff deal with those topics. Focus on delivering technology services that provide for improved citizen experience and outcomes in a mission that matters.

Listen before you lead

The people who work in state IT are dedicated public servants you can listen and learn from before you lead them. I remember in my first few days walking around to each desk and shaking hands with hundreds of people to thank them for their service and let them know what they do is important. It is from these teammates I started to learn what public service was all about. These employees work in public sector because of their interest in performing a mission that matters — help them see it. Make sure the executive leadership you inherited shares the goals of your mission and stays interested in keeping employees engaged. There can be opportunities to restructure the team to align people in better ways, so take the time to get to know what is working and what needs improving.

Build many outside relationships


During the first few months, it will be hard to prioritize who to meet with. It could be direct employees, cabinet members, other elected officials, other IT team members, or vendor partners, to name a few.

I remember having a lot of meetings with key stakeholders. I wanted to know what they thought of IT and how we needed to improve.  I had one-on-one sessions with all the Cabinet members and other agency elected officials to understand their mission. As important, the vendor partner community serving our common stakeholders is a great input.

I was fortunate in getting assistance from the state technology association that allowed meetings with large groups of vendor partners anxious to help. In addition, there is the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, or NASCIO, which is an excellent resource at all stages of your role. Talk to Doug Robinson, the executive director, as he knows your issues well and can help network you to solutions and other state CIOs. Embrace NASCIO and invest your limited capacity here and you will be rewarded with valuable information and extensive networking.

You are not alone — it’s a small group you have joined, with some changing every couple of years. Former state CIOs are here to help, so connect with them on LinkedIn, and take the meeting request from one, as you too will be a former state CIO one day.

The list goes on, but as with any top government official, your time is limited. Start with these three in the first few weeks of the position. Then, in the coming months, your IT agenda for your state will begin to take shape and you can start to implement. You likely have two to three years to complete these projects and leave your mark for the next state CIO. Well wishes.

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