CIOs Playing Office Politics

By Arthur Langer  |  Posted 06-24-2010

More and more CIOs I speak with are spending less time doing the traditional IT stuff. Instead, they are spending more time presenting how IT provides strategic value to the business.

This seems straightforward, but then why are so many CIOs still struggling? Some experts believe many CIOs are incapable of making the leap--that they prefer the technical back-office tasks, or that they cannot seem to make the necessary business connections.

All these criticisms hold some truth, but I see something that is probably more conditional on CIO success in making the IT-to-business connection. My research has uncovered two critical factors: politics and strategic advocacy.

Politics: the Good and the Bad

"Politics" often has a negative connotation, but it actually has a good side. We all agree that bad politics is destructive. It involves ethical violations in conduct to promote individual and group behavior that is inconsistent with organizational values.

On the other hand, good politics focuses on using forces that help move others to your point of view. It allows executives to obtain support for what they believe by using leadership values via political connections.

Ideas x Politics = Actionable Results, whereas Ideas x No Political Influence = 0.

Good ideas alone are not enough. Politics can add value by allowing CIOs to initiate and influence relationships with other leaders.

Strategic Thinking and Advocacy

Columbia University Professor Lyle Yorks defines strategic advocacy as "establishing personal and functional influence by cultivating alliances through defining opportunities that add value to either the top or bottom line."

He asks students to think about these questions when they confront a business challenge:

1. State your business (role-based) problem/challenge in the form of a question.

2. What is the background of this challenge? Who are the key stakeholders? What are their interests? Requirements? Aims?

3. What are the barriers to consider in coming to a solution: time, resources, attitudes, politics, personalities, structure and so on?

4. What solutions have already been tried? What were the outcomes? What efforts are currently in place?

5. What help would you like to have in thinking about how you will tackle this challenge?

CIOs need to have interpersonal expertise that allows them to attain a network of allies at the C-suite. This requires political alignment and an understanding of corporate values. They also must have a solid track record and an outstanding reputation. Most important, CIOs must have the ability to link their strategy to the needs of the business,.

Joel Deluca, author of Political Savvy, offers five questions for mapping political territory:

1. Who are the key players?

2. What is their influence in the organization?

3. To what extent are they applying their influence for or against the issue?

4. How easily can their influence be changed?

5. What significant relationships exist among the key players?

These seem like simple questions, but Lyle Yorks and I have found that many executives don't ask them. The usual result: political suicide.

Yorks and I are writing a book on CIOs and strategic advocacy, so we will have new case studies about best practices for CIOs.

Arthur Langer is senior director of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement at Columbia University. Send your comments to editors@cioinsight.com.