CIO

The Pull of Persuasion

Smart CIOs create partnerships and alliances to carve out a powerful role for themselves and their IT department

You would think that the executive who consumes, on average, nearly 50 percent of the capital invested by businesses would have a lot of power. You would be wrong. CIOs are basically powerless and they know it. Yet some CIOs get a little cranky with their Rodney Dangerfield role and parlay themselves and their organizations into a power deficit.

How else to explain CIOs who lash out at business partners for trying new technologies, who create byzantine processes that block access to information and technology resources, or who seem to extort funding by hiding behind policies like Sarbox and mergers and refusing to articulate what comprises "keep the lights on" expenses?

Smart CIOs lead from the back by creating partnerships and alliances. Picture Survivor without all the dirt, bugs and voting, and you have a mental image of the skills required for success. I'm not a big fan of the reality television series, but I am impressed with CIOs who understand how to get things done through others and, in doing so, are able to create a powerful role for themselves, their organizations and technology.

First things first: Powerful CIOs get out of their offices and spend the majority of their time within the business and with their business partners. This is a principle known by many but acted on by few because most CIOs don't know what to do when they leave the safety and comfort of their department. While it's easy to identify whom you need to get closer to, it feels awkward to reach out and say: "I would love to spend more time getting to know you and your organization. How can we spend more together?"

I don't have any magic pill here. I do suggest that you talk to two stakeholders on a one-on-one basis once a week and to make sure that by the end of the discussion you have put another meeting on the calendar. This one will be to provide help to these stakeholders, solicit their feedback, attend a staff meeting, or travel to a field or customer site of theirs.

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Powerful CIOs understand influence comes from understanding and empathizing with others. In the book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman writes: "Our experience of oneness — a sense of merging or sharing identities — increases whenever we take someone else's perspective, and it strengthens the more we see things from their point of view." To achieve that perspective, plan for each interaction by writing down five topics related to the people and their work so that the discussion provides insights as to who they are, how they think and work, and what they care about.

Powerful CIOs understand the importance of listening and enquiry before shifting to advocacy. The common rule in emotionally charged conversations is to offer the other parties two empathetic listening responses (reflecting the content and the words) before asking questions to uncover the rationale for their feelings, actions and conclusions. While it may feel much more efficient and powerful to say: "We should", it's much more effective to ask: "How should?" The goal is to fully understand the thought processes of others before offering your own recommendations.

Powerful CIOs understand that persuading and inspiring others starts with character and credibility that are established through personal interactions or, initially, conferred through a trusted third party. They understand the power of appropriate praise and doing unsolicited favours for others. They don't waste their time trying to win the day through hard sells and grandstanding. Instead, they build support for ideas behind the scenes through one-on-one meetings and lots of give and take. They know how to link their recommendations to the benefits and needs of others and communicate using stories and metaphors. Powerful CIOs have the courage to negotiate win-win outcomes because, through every action, they have expressed consideration for all parties.

It's easy to confuse leading from the back with following because of the amount of time spent listening and adjusting to the needs of others. The key difference between the two was best expressed by Eisenhower when he said: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want because he wants to do it." Leading from the back is leadership at its finest. Done well, it fosters commitment based on the reward of a job well done.

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Reader Q&A

Q: What is your advice when efforts to reach out to a business partner fail? One business unit head at my company is always "too busy" to meet with me.

A: It sounds like you have gone above and beyond in your efforts to forge a relationship. First and foremost, make sure that his organization is satisfied with your day-to-day services. If issues exist, get them resolved. It's impossible to create relationships if operational credibility isn't in place. Next, focus on creating a great reputation with other, more cooperative business units. Ask those who have a relationship with this executive to praise your efforts. Try also to cultivate relationships and build credibility with his direct reports. Ask them for opportunities to get in front of their supervisor to review your joint accomplishments.


Q: Don't those who "lead from the back" run the risk of being perceived not as leaders but as followers?

A: Great leaders practise the philosophy that, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." They use enquiry to understand others' perspectives and shift into advocacy when they have the information necessary to propose the path forward.


Q: Why counsel CIOs to use others to drive their agenda? Why not take an aggressive stance to position yourself as a leader within the organization?

A: Let me use an analogy to answer your question. My doctor can take a more aggressive stance to influence me to take better care of myself, but I am the one who determines whether or not my behaviours change.

The best way for my doctor to influence me is to understand my motivators. CIOs don't own the "Three P's" of value creation (the processes, P&L and people) so they must use others to drive their agenda. Of course their agenda must be shared, since those owning the Three P's determine the priority and success of the IT-enabled initiatives. The CIO can drive the IT agenda only if it serves the needs of those running the business.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of the California-based executive coaching firm Valuedance. You can e-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com