CIO Career Killer: Lack of Influence

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 07-25-2011
What does a CIO need to be successful? We each have our own answers. Some may say that technical excellence and knowledge counts most, others might place the emphasis on business awareness, relationships or just hard-core ambition. Certainly, all of these are necessary to reach a certain level in an organization. But to take the final step and be accepted as someone who is truly a member of the C-suite, you need one more thing: influence. This is the first in a series of articles on how to position yourself as an influential leader in your organization.

Warning: Your lack of influence may be killing your career and you don't even know it.

Do the following scenarios feel like another day at the office to you?
  • You have a $20 million IT budget, but you can't get the CFO to approve your $150,000 data mining initiative.
  • Your group has just implemented a $5 million ecommerce system, but you aren't invited to the business planning meetings for how best to use the new system going forward.
  • The finance group is considering a BI tool that is not the organization's standard, and no one from your IT group was invited to the meeting with the vendor.

These scenarios aren't fairy tales. They are real-life stories, and they are happening every day all across the world.

Most of the time, the CIOs or IT leaders who share these stories with me follow up with their explanation of the problem. It usually goes something like this.

"Our users simply don't get it. This stuff we do is really difficult. They expect us to work miracles and yet they barely get involved -- except of course to criticize and question our value. We try to set up steering committees and user groups, but somehow IT ends up getting pushed to the back of the queue. Is it any surprise that they tell us we are out of touch with what they want? They never give us the time to really get in touch with them."

Welcome to the world of most IT leaders today. A world where you feel challenged to keep up with the dizzying changes in information technology and how to best apply it to your organizations' needs, all in an environment where your key stakeholders question your value every step of the way.

So, what's going on? Why are so many IT leaders struggling to "get aligned" with the business and to get a seat at the table? Why, at a time when information technology is transforming the world, are so many IT leaders afraid that their organizations are about to be downgraded and/or their jobs are about to be outsourced?

The answer, as you may have guessed from the headline, is a problem which I've observed time and again: Many IT leaders lack the influence they need with their peers, stakeholders and bosses.

Stop. Don't just keep reading. Really stop and consider this point.

Challenge yourself for just one moment to make sense of those words: "Many IT leaders lack the influence they need." What does that mean? Does that perhaps apply to you too?

Of course you don't want to think that you have this problem. It's not a nice feeling. It's kind of like when the doctor first tells you that you have high blood pressure and you have to lose 15 pounds, cut out salt, and start taking medication. (Yes, I know from personal experience.)

In the back of your mind you are thinking: "This can't be right. I feel pretty good. Overall things are good. It's just a few problem areas. After all, everyone I talk to tells me they have these problems."

Well, I'm here to tell you that it's time to stop kidding yourself. It's time to see the reality of your situation. And most importantly, it's time to fix the situation.

It's time to change this reality for you and for other IT leaders like you. It's time to start getting the respect that IT leaders deserve.

Why is influence so important for IT leaders?

Nobody would argue with the statement that the ability to influence others is a useful skill. Yet, few IT professionals realize that influence is the key to success for a CIO. Influence is what moves a CIO from a competent technical manager to an executive whose work and contributions are valued and who enjoys the respect of the senior leadership of the organization.

And why is that the case? Because influencing others is what IT leaders are paid to do. It's one of the most essential elements of the job. Senior executives are constantly making decisions about IT investments:

  • How much budget should be allocated to IT?
  • Which business unit or project should receive highest priority?
  • Is it worth investing in an enterprise-wide solution or is a point solution more cost-effective?
  • Can we postpone the investment in infrastructure for one more year, when we expect the economy to be stronger?

When these questions arise, senior executives need you, the CIO, to lead the discussion and to provide guidance. But you can only fill this role if you have influence. That is to say, when you speak, you need your colleagues to trust you, to believe that you understand them, their business and their strategic priorities and not just the technical aspects of the decision. Simply put, without meaningful influence, you can't do your job of directing the organizations' investment in, and use of, technology.

Multi-million dollar transformations, such as the implementation of electronic medical record systems for example, touch nearly every aspect of an organization. In these cases the responsibility for the transformation can't possibly reside with just the CIO. In fact, for such a transformation to be successful, it requires broad-based business ownership from the start. That's why leading hospitals often choose the chief of hospital operations or the COO to head up these types of projects.

Often, I hear IT leaders complain that they can't get proper business involvement. What they don't count on is what happens whey they really get it. In many ways the job becomes tougher than it would be if they don't have the requisite influence already in place.

The more involved business executives are in a project, the more influence the CIO needs. With a project firmly rooted in the business (as it should be), your role as CIO -- to help ensure the right technology-related decisions are taken -- becomes much more dependent on your ability to effectively influence colleagues across the business.

How do you build the influence necessary to succeed in your organization, whether big or small? How do you create a new reality where the value and contribution of IT is understood and appreciated; where your ideas are listened to carefully? These are among the topics we'll explore as we continue this series on the influential CIO.

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, is a speaker, IT strategist and analytics expert. Download your free book excerpt at http://11SecretsforITleaders.com