In Credibility We Trust

First impressions do not last and soon give way to a more measured response. This is where super-hero CIOs come into their own. They view their personal credibility as a valuable asset. And the building of their personal credibility is like paying money into a bank account

Start making deposits into your personal credibility bank account today.

Struggling to bridge the chasm between business and IT? You are not alone. This gap has been an issue for so long that you could be forgiven for wondering whether it would take some sort of super human to straddle it. In recent research, we set out to see if CIOs did need to be super-heroes to leap this gap successfully, and if so, what their super powers might be.

Yet after interviewing more than 30 CIOs from the biggest companies around the world, we found you didn't need to be a superhero after all. Instead what you had to do was focus relentlessly on building your own personal credibility and everything else followed from there.

Credibility is the currency of senior management. For a CIO, personal credibility is the state of mind you trigger in those around you. If you are widely trusted and respected for your ability to give good advice, known to keep your commitments (which, of course, means the entire IS organization too) and your executive colleagues know they can count on you to always deliver promised results, then you have personal credibility.

If you're a new CIO, and your predecessor did their job well, then you can reasonably expect to inherit some of their credibility like a dowry - especially if the handover was amicable and well executed. If, on the other hand, your predecessor had low credibility and came to be seen as the root of all evil, then the fact that you have arrived to save the day will give you instant credibility - albeit sometimes born out of desperation - even before your first actions.

However first impressions do not last and soon give way to a more measured response. This is where super-hero CIOs come into their own. They view their personal credibility as a valuable asset. And the building of their personal credibility is like paying money into a bank account.

Credits to the CIO's personal credibility account are made each time they deliver the results their business colleagues care about. Debits are made when deadlines are missed, things go wrong or differences of opinions erupt. In these instances, CIOs may find that their account has suddenly been emptied and they are politically bankrupted.

We learned from our research that the exchange rate between good performance by the CIO and the value of the deposit credited into the credibility bank account is far from fixed. This means, CIOs can do a lot to strengthen the performance of their currency and so build their credibility balances much more quickly.

The most common way of driving up the value of CIO credibility is to focus business executive attention on some aspect of their superlative performance. But gaining the attention of busy and distracted people is not easy.

The CIOs we spoke to frequently pointed to their relationship with their senior executive or other business champion as one of their success factors. The critical skill in this instance is the ability to anticipate business needs. Anticipation of business needs flows from an understanding of how the enterprise works, what it does for its customers and stakeholders, and even how your executive colleagues are incentivized.

A practical manifestation of this ability to anticipate might be something as profound as a willingness to shape business strategy. Another is getting actively involved with managing some key business issue, such as deploying an innovative stream of technology-enabled business solutions that reinforce IT's position as a source of good ideas.

This does not mean the CIO has to say "yes" all the time. In fact, if anything, the ability to be the lone voice saying "no", even in the face of considerable pressure, can be a positive source of credibility as it plainly demonstrates personal integrity.

Keep people informed. A good way to increase the value of the CIO's coin is to keep people informed. Open communication means you are valued as a source of insight. Open communication also allows you to overcome the "logic of resistance".

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The logic of resistance occurs when an issue comes before an executive who has not been properly briefed so the person's first reaction is to view the issue as unimportant - "After all, if it were important, I would know about it". Executives will not place their credibility at risk by supporting something they do not know about or believe is unimportant. This combination leaves them with one course of action: resistance.

Is it possible to combat the logic of resistance without putting your credibility at stake? Of course. Tell them up front, speak in their language and give them an out if they don't like the idea (preferably one that is both face-saving and won't wreck other plans). Most of all, understand the people and issues you're dealing with.

Many less than successful CIOs invest time and effort in reading and researching technology futures and trends, but spend next to no time researching the industry and policy debates affecting their enterprise.

Align with the CEO's executive agenda. An important, but often underplayed, way of increasing the value of the CIO's credibility is the recognition that providing IT services effectively requires managing priorities, and that it's the executive agenda that ranks these priorities.

Aligning with the executive agenda involves focusing IS projects on clearly-defined business issues and opportunities, and supporting the senior executive's to-do list. Maintaining a separate "shadow" IS agenda is counterproductive. It weakens influence and reduces resource investments. It drains your credibility bank account.

Initiatives take time to implement, while visions and agendas form at a faster pace. Managing the tension between the two is one way to demonstrate alignment. And doing it transparently increases your standing.

In some cases, the executive agenda is unclear. This requires the CIO to be proactive and uncover the agenda by identifying common needs, which builds alignment on shared information. CIOs need to work with peers and customers to understand their top three business priorities and determine the things that IS has done well and not so well.

The more credible CIOs we spoke with understand that the appropriations and budgeting processes reward alignment with the executive agenda. CIOs that demonstrate this alignment beyond a superficial level gain the influence and resources needed to accomplish their mission, which builds their credibility.

IT plays an active role in gaining and losing the CIO credibility. As CIO, the terrible truth is that you can't bridge the gap between IT and the business on your own. Like it or not, the CIO and the IS organization are seen as one and the same. As one executive put it: "Business units are resigned to having IS not deliver on its commitments or meet its requirements. It's just IS."

Information technology was never the remedy for all situations - something our high performer CIOs pointed out very clearly. Sometimes good advice or restricting IT's role in a particular change, especially if questions of ownership and responsibility for the outcome may arise, is more valuable. Credibility comes from knowing when to walk away.

So CIOs don't have to be super-heroes, able to leap the chasm between business and IT, to be a roaring success. Respected CIOs have built their personal credibility by hard work and focus, to the point where this chasm all but closes up. Sure they can see over tall buildings, but only because they are carried on the shoulders of the IS professionals that they lead because these professionals view them as credible bosses

Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner's CIO Executive Programs