CIO Careers: Why IT Gets No Respect

It’s time for a change in mindset and tactics. Rather than asking why IT doesn’t get the respect it deserves, let’s ask the real question: Why, given the importance of IT, aren’t IT leaders more influential?

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 second in a series of articles on how to position yourself as an influential leader in your organization. The first installment was CIO Career Killer: Lack of Influence.

"IT doesn't get enough respect."

Talk about an overused phrase. Seems like it's around us everywhere we look. Although it may be a nearly ubiquitous problem, practical and real solutions are few and far between. Case in point: InfoWorld recently published an easy-to-agree with piece titled: "10 hard truths IT must learn to accept." Number 10 on the list: "You will never get the respect you deserve."

Bad enough that lack of respect is a top 10 item, but when it comes to providing advice on how to address this challenge, we get the same old refrain, "The best way to finally get some respect? Earn it every day... focus on providing extraordinary value to the company."  Puhleez. As if without this deep insight we'd all go to work thinking that providing minimal value is the pathway to the respect we deserve.

It's obvious that IT as a whole, and every professional, manager and leader in the IT value chain, needs to deliver superior value every day. But the fact of the matter is that we see many highly qualified IT leaders, and their teams, who deliver value yet still suffer from a lack of respect. Clearly, something isn't working. There has to be something else at play here.

A closer look

This "lack of respect" issue has bugged me for some time. So, in the hope of getting to the bottom of it, I commissioned a primary market research study. The aim of the study: To uncover the most significant management and leadership problems of IT leaders and how they experience them.

As expected, a substantial number of respondents identified "lack of respect" as a major issue. Some of the more frequently cited experiences by respondents to back up their "lack of respect" included:

  • IT is not included in most business strategy discussions; colloquially stated, the CIO doesn't have a seat at the table.
  • IT is not brought into discussions about new initiatives early enough to influence how the initiative is implemented or to plan properly for the IT component.
  • IT struggles to get sufficient budget to do the projects the business wants done and even more so for infrastructure upgrades.
  • The business doesn't appreciate how long it takes to get an IT project done properly. They'll accept a plan and timeline in the end because they have no choice, but then they'll ask again in six months why it can't be done faster.
  • Business leaders don't properly support IT projects. There isn't enough attention from senior business sponsors and they don't assign the right people for enough hours to the projects. The actions of the business undermine the effectiveness of IT.

Still think it's about respect?

From the above experiences, I'm sure you can see that the "lack of respect" issue so often reported by IT leaders isn't about being "dissed" in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, it's about not being influential enough--not on the corporate level to be heard on strategic topics; and not on the tactical level to garner the appropriate support required for IT to be successful. Nevertheless, the result is still the same. IT professionals and managers are left feeling that they are not respected. Their rationale: if they were respected they wouldn't be treated this way.

Reframing the question

Now, with a better understanding of what's really going on, let's ask the question that started us off with a little more clarity. Rather than asking why IT doesn't get the respect it deserves, let's ask the real question: Why, given the importance of IT, aren't IT leaders more influential?

The heart of the issue

After much formal and informal research, it seems that there are three basic causes for this situation:

  1. The natural tendencies and interests of IT professionals: It's an obvious truism that the majority of IT folks are highly oriented towards numbers, toward seeing things in black and white, toward linear thinking. Earning the influence to secure a seat at the leadership table and to be listened to requires people skills, seeing greys, emotional intelligence, and non-linear thinking -- the very skills which IT people don't tend to be naturally good at.
  2. The professional development gap:  There isn't a graduate program I know of in computer science that even hints to these skills and how critical they are. It's all about tech, tech and more tech. But, even for those of us who do recognize that we need to develop influence-building skills and who want to work to learn how to build the right kind of interpersonal relationships, there aren't a lot of good resources to help. Sure, there are lots of seminars and self-help books out there. But they tend to focus on sales skills or on personal influence development. They don't address the unique needs of IT professionals in the workplace, i.e., how to develop and adapt relationship-building skills to the IT environment and its built-in challenges in interacting with the business communities.
  3. An aversion to influence development as generally presented: Let's assume that you can get past the first two issues. For most of us, we still face the biggest stumbling block towards developing the influence skills that we need to be successful. IT professionals believe that influence and respect should grow from deliverables. After all, either a system works or not. It's not about talk it's about deliverables. (Hence the typical answer we find of just deliver value.)

The very notion of influence development -- especially in the way it is portrayed in the popular press -- triggers an emotional aversion to the topic by IT professionals. Dirty politics, underhanded manipulations, back-room deals, yuck. It smells of self-serving intentions and getting your way with people. And we don't want any part of it.

There is another way

If IT professionals and managers are going to get the influence (and respect) they need (and deserve), the journey begins with an attitude adjustment.

In place of thinking about influence as "what's in it for me?" and "how can I manipulate someone else to do what I want?," start thinking about "how can I be an influence for good?" Think about pursuing influence in order to ensure that your organization makes considered and intelligent choices about its IT investments. Think about how important influence is for you to do a good job.

Bottom line

The first and most important step towards getting the respect you deserve is making the attitudinal shift to believing that the pursuit of influence is a good thing. That it's not only okay to pursue influence, it's the good and ethical thing to do for your professional success, for the success of IT at your company, and for the reputation of the larger community of IT professionals.

About the author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a sought-after speaker, IT strategist and analytics expert who is committed to transforming IT leaders into influential executives. Download a free excerpt of the book at http://11secretsforITleaders.com

This article was originally published on 08-02-2011
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