Follow the Money
Managing up, though, requires more than high-level schmoozing. Harvey Enns, assistant professor of business at the University of Dayton School of Business Administration, recently asked 69 CIOs how they became skilled at wielding influence in their companies. Enns found that one of the most effective tactics they used was what Enns calls rational persuasion—presenting a logical case for the bottom-line payoff of a project. "Otherwise, executives argue that the initiative will take the company in the wrong direction and dismiss it," Enns says.
Six months ago, for example, Steve Brown, CIO of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Tenet Healthcare Corp., an $11.4 billion healthcare provider, embarked on an effort to win senior management approval for an ambitious Web-based distance-learning program for the company's more than 25,000 nurses. To sell the plan to top managers at a time when they were examining new IT projects more rigorously than ever, Brown made the case that the system would dramatically reduce turnover among nurses and increase patient satisfaction—and he provided numbers demonstrating what those improvements would mean to the bottom line. It worked, despite management's tougher attitude. "Without quantifiable objectives, your proposals won't survive," says Tom Mangan, global managing partner of enterprise technology solutions for Andersen Consulting in Atlanta.
It also doesn't hurt to tell a few stories to demonstrate the potential impact of a new technology initiative. When Tenet Healthcare's Brown sought to convince management to build a Web site to give consumers access to information and resources about the company and medical issues, he didn't have many hard numbers at his fingertips to justify the project—just a good hunch. So he borrowed a page from the marketing department's focus group methodology and set up interviews and workshops with customers. From those, he was able to gather real-life anecdotes and insights about what customers would want to see from such a system—and why it would matter to them. Later, when pitching his proposal to corporate beancounters, Brown was able to help them see how the proposed system could help real-life customers.
To strengthen his case, Brown also researched what the company's top rivals were already doing for customers with CRM technology, and the extra effort won the day. "You have to do whatever it takes to get people to understand what you're trying to accomplish," Brown says.
But just relying on a formal presentation, no matter how air-tight, is still no guarantee of success. What happens behind the scenes is also something that needs to be choreographed. Approval requires not only building ownership across many functions but also getting a buy-in from key players before anyone even walks through the door of the conference room.
Last spring, Mark Zahorik, CIO of Dallas-based Rapp Collins, a direct-marketing company, became convinced the firm's key Dallas unit had to embark on an ambitious effort to rewrite the marketing databases used by clients. The idea was to create a modular design so that certain components could be re-used for many clients, instead of designing a different database for each project. It was a $750,000 proposition, just when it seemed that new business was starting to dwindle. Zahorik, however, felt he could make the case for the improvements: They would reduce cost and the time it took to get information to clients.
Zahorik didn't wait until the formal meeting to make his move. Instead, he immediately targeted sub-managers who would be most likely to influence the project and met informally with each of them. Then, when he was sure he had won them to his side, Zahorik arranged for a real presentation to the higher-ups—the CEO, CFO and COO. He knew he was ready for prime time because in his trial runs, each sub-manager had become so engaged in Zahorik's proposal that they tried to take the discussion to the next step.
"I wanted to be positive that all those heads would nod yes when the time came," Zahorik says. Sure enough, the committee approved the project. Says Andersen's Mangan: "Failure to win a buy-in from other top managers can be fatal, even with a clear mandate from the CEO."
Consider the new CIO of a major publishing firm, hired last fall by the CEO to build a system tying 26 business units, most of them recent acquisitions, into one centralized unit. It was a $150 million project that would take five years to complete. Convinced he had a clear go-ahead from the top, however, the CIO never bothered to make his case to anyone else in the executive suite. Then, when ad revenues started drying up, the company was forced to announce layoffs—and the board began looking with a more critical eye at the initiative. The result: With few allies to back him up, the project was put on hold indefinitely. Now, "all he can do is manage the status quo, which is a mess," says Mangan. "And eventually the board will hold him responsible for failing to address the problem."
For CIOs, Knapp says, the opportunity and need exists to educate top management about how such systems can cut costs and boost revenues. But to do that well, CIOs need to know how to identify the business people inside the company who can make a difference—and then learn how to speak their language. At the board level, "they want to hear, short and sweet, what an idea will do for the business, what it will mean for opening up new markets and what the competition is doing," says Rudin of Eisner Information Solutions. "They don't want a lot of technical detail."
Imagination and creativity are also required, along with the metrics. When Dwivedi first tried to win approval for his e-commerce initiative, for example, he was turned down. So he directed his team to place clear plastic piggy banks in strategic locations throughout the company's headquarters, with notes attached asking passersby to donate money to pay for e-commerce. A month later, ADC's executive committee reexamined the project and approved it, noting Dwivedi's collection campaign. Says Dwivedi: "I launched a campaign to display my faith and passion in the vision of e-commerce, and it succeeded. You have to have a clear vision of where you want to take a system over the next three to five years. Then, you need to engage in selling that vision in a way that captures the imagination of the CEO, CFO and COO."
Initiatives also have to be in sync with what business units need, and that means it's also important to manage down: to use those who work below you as your scouts on in-house trends that may influence or alter your initiatives.
Andrew Bartles of Giga Information Group, an IT advisory firm in Cambridge, Mass., says it's a good idea to meet regularly with mid-level managers and to institute a system whereby members of the IT staff "act as the eyes and ears of the CIO," he says. Ulrich Seif, CIO of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based National Semiconductor Corp., for example, has his direct reports sit in on weekly staff meetings for finance, human resources, marketing and sales, and manufacturing "so they can spot trends early on," he says. Last fall, his sales and marketing representatives reported an interesting find to Seif's weekly IT staff meeting: Marketing felt that the distribution of semiconductors had become more global and that the company lacked the internal processes needed to keep pace with industry trends. So Seif and his team linked up with marketing to develop a "globalization of distribution" initiative.
The goal: By linking up everyone in the company's supply chain, the system would allow users to see everything from the status of orders to sales levels of specific products across facilities in 120 countries—and then decide, for example, whether or not to speed up or slow down production. Ultimately, the proposal was championed by the senior vice president of marketing, who made the final presentation to the executive staff in October. It was approved.
Others take a more informal approach. ADC's Dwivedi directs a team of 30 IT managers to mingle constantly with their counterparts in other departments, talking up certain projects and looking for input. It's an easy task, since each IT manager works in the same location as the tasks he or she is assigned to perform. The program manager for e-commerce, for example, sits alongside customer service representatives. Whenever they discover anything that could affect a particular effort, Dwivedi's people report that information back to their boss.
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