The importance of becoming a trusted advisor

CIOs who have moved beyond simply being managers to becoming trusted advisors, have a great latitude to innovate and drive change.

To help enterprises thrive in an uncertain digital future, CIOs need to become trusted advisors to the rest of the C-suite. Some people have a knack for becoming trusted advisors. Many CIOs, however, aren't so lucky.

They have to work on becoming a trusted advisor because the skills involved are greatly different from the engineering problem solving skills that helped them master their current role. Some CIOs may even feel that the role of trusted advisor is out of reach.

Any CIO can realistically set “trusted advisor” as the goal. A great trusted advisor uses a formal approach to selling, persuading and overcoming resistance.

Selling and persuasion, however, can feel like bad words in our mass-marketing culture. For many people, the word “sales” conjures up thoughts of fast talkers in bad suits, with slicked-back hair. Likewise, “persuasion” can be associated with coercion. Yet what’s charismatic leadership, if not the ability to persuade audiences to rally behind a vision?

Your advice must not only be heard, but also internalised by the person you’re advising. Amid a backdrop of vendor marketing, management consultants and the ever-present white noise of spam, your message must stand out and trigger action from the person you advise. It’s not good enough to simply give great advice. To be a trusted advisor, you’ve got to sell.

Top-notch salespeople help their customers address problems and seize opportunities by showing the path to a better future. They don’t make vague promises. They paint a clear picture of the path to improvement.

CIOs who have moved beyond simply being managers to becoming trusted advisors, have a great latitude to innovate and drive change. Meanwhile, those who focus on the table stakes of IT find themselves under constant budgetary and operational pressures.

All CIOs need the abilities to sell and persuade in their toolbox. Without them, you’ll be powerless to help the enterprise survive and thrive.

Selling a compelling vision

Even very successful CIOs are discovering that the skills that got them there, won’t necessarily take them to the next level. Ultimately businesses need their CIOs to become trusted advisors who have the ability to sell a compelling vision. This vision and the will to execute it are required for the success of any transformation to digital business. The skills applied are active, not passive, and they need to work upwardly and laterally in the organisation.

If you’re trying to persuade business leaders to transform to digital business, overcoming established mental models can be very onerous. It’s even more difficult if the attempts to persuade rely on the wrong triggers. Persuading established business leaders to try something new, rather than to double down on what has worked in the past, requires a compelling narrative full of emotional triggers.

CIOs have one of the hardest selling jobs. When you’re trying to sell a car or a copier, you have features, functions and product styling to use in enhancing the persuasion. But selling an idea — a vision — requires the kind of persuasive abilities usually found on the bad side in con artists, demagogues and political hacks, as well as on the good side in pastors, therapists, sports coaches and, all too rarely, a subset of trustworthy salespeople. Gartner calls these abilities the selling “superpowers.”

The tactics of persuasion

Trusted advisors don’t play off a script. Scripts don’t allow for listening or the execution of any of the superpowers in a relevant way. Think about your own trusted advisors. They make a personal or professional difference in your life without working off some “pathway to the sale” program.

The hard part, of course, is figuring out what a person’s problem is. Exacerbating this challenge is that people are rarely upfront about their problems or desires, and that we tend to respond to messaging that feels like it’s specifically for us.

This is where the tactics of truly great salespeople come into play. Rather than applying a formula, they can use tools that amplify their ability to get to the root of the prospect’s problem.

Overcoming resistance

The best efforts to sell and persuade may still be met with significant resistance. This can be exceptionally frustrating for “engineering brains” who believe they’ve found the ideal solution, only to be met with what they view as a perplexing and illogical reaction.

With a few well-honed tactics and some practice, resistance can actually be used to explore and develop ideas, and ultimately reach a common understanding along with shared goals. Overcoming resistance well, with style and dexterity, adds to a CIO’s cachet as a trusted advisor.

Leigh McMullen is a managing vice president at Gartner. He specialises in research for CIOs, especially to do with business engagement, internal selling and IT marketing, IT strategy and transformation, service management and major initiative planning. He will be presenting at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Australia, 30 October-2 November 2017.