At C-level, Credibility Means Success

By Marianne Broadbent  |  Posted 05-05-2005

At C-level, Credibility Means Success

Among the questions CIOS most frequently ask me are, "How do I contribute to our business strategy when I am not sure we really have one?" and "How do I get buy-in from my executive colleagues when linking our business and IT strategies?"

Two issues are usually intertwined here: the lack of an articulated or coherent approach to business strategy, and the level of your credibility as a CIO.

The processes discussed in earlier columns for unearthing business strategies, generating maxims and teasing out their IT implications work very well if you can bring the right players to the table at the same time.

As many CIOs well know, this may be impossible, especially if you are still in the process of building or rebuilding your own credibility. To compound the challenge, if the business strategy being discussed has inherent contradictions, any IT-related investments made in support of that strategy risk being wide of the mark.

Some smart CIOs have tackled these challenges by "reverse-engineering" their business strategy. One example is John Petrey, executive vice president and CIO of TD Banknorth Inc., a Portland, Maine-based bank with $1.3 billion in 2004 revenues.

When Petrey took the position in late 2001, he figured his first challenge was to come to terms with the bank's business strategy, so he could determine some IT maxims to help shape major IT-related investment decisions. But Petrey soon found that he could not immediately get the attention of the key executives he needed.

At the time, the IT leadership team at Bank-north was struggling with three challenges. First, IT was seen as not pulling its weight in the ongoing operations of the bank. There were problems delivering everyday services as well as new applications. Consequently—problem No. 2—managers of the bank's business units didn't value the IT organization. The units often made IT decisions without involving Petrey's organization.

And third, Banknorth's most senior corporate executives were almost completely disengaged from IT and the work of Petrey's group.

While fixing the operational problems—daily service delivery and applications development—Petrey also began working on deeper underlying issues within IT, such as poor alignment with _the business, limited business acumen within IT, and opaque IT processes. As he worked on these problems, it became clear that the company lacked an IT strategy allied with a clear long-term business vision.

Determining an IT strategy quickly became a priority, but creating one proved to be more challenging than expected. The major obstacle: an unfocused business strategy that was poorly documented at a sufficiently detailed level.

Drawing out implications for investment priorities and IT services proved virtually impossible.

Petrey found plenty of what he called "artifacts" of strategy, such as e-mails, memos and public statements by executives, and these he augmented with personal conversations. But it was hard for Petrey to get a handle on the sort of detailed business direction that he needed, and he didn't want to develop a set of IT maxims in a vacuum.

If they were going to work, Petrey knew that his maxims had to be based on the business directions, and they had to be reasonably detailed.

So Petrey decided it was best to work backwards. He and his team reverse-engineered a set of business principles and maxims from the artifacts they could identify. And from those, they constructed a "what if" set of IT maxims.

After discussing the derived business strategy and resulting IT maxims with Banknorth executives, Petrey was able to come up with a set of formally validated and accepted IT maxims.

Today Petrey and his staff have much greater input into the tough decisions around their IT strategy—decisions involving how much time, money and energy to invest to IT-enable the business over the next two to three years.

What Petrey and his team did was build internal credibility by fixing the immediate issues within their control, while creatively tackling the problem of the missing strategy. Petrey used resources to show some quick results where he could, and then he used those results, and his new tenure, to approach his executive colleagues with his "what if" maxims.

Next page: Working with specifics.

Working with specifics


This minimized the time the executives needed to spend with him, while demonstrating that he and his team had done their homework. Nothing annoys executives more than a vague request like "Tell me about the strategy," or "Tell me your objectives." It usually makes much more sense to give them something specific to debate and agree or disagree with, while showing you are completely engaged in your industry, business and competitive positioning.

Petrey built his credibility in a step-by-step process, understanding that it is something that comes from your executive colleagues.

Another approach is what I call "buy-in through envy." It works this way: You come into an organization and find that people don't understand why you have been appointed. It's hard to get any buy-in to what you need to do, and you begin to feel that you wouldn't have taken the job if you had known then what you know now. But it's a bit late for that, so you have to start small, be specific, and show your colleagues what is -really possible.

It's best to start with just one business colleague—perhaps someone who has trouble getting resources, but who really understands how she can use information and technology to take her business to the next level. You put some of your best people on a small project that they can deliver in 90 days. It's a bit like "do something and learn from it," except the goal here is "do something, succeed and have others take notice."

Their reaction: "I want to do that too," or "I sure could use some of those resources." I have seen this tactic work many times. You just have to locate one executive you can work with successfully and get started.

I have been at quite a few company meetings when the outcomes of a small project in one business were reported. Other business heads—usually of larger business units—get agitated that they did not get access to that kind of expertise, and now they want it, too. You create a visible honey pot and draw them in, raising your credibility at the same time.

Based on that credibility, you can get the resources and permission to undertake various other IT initiatives. In Petrey's case, these were quite limited in the beginning. Usually those initiatives have outcomes and results, which, depending on what they are and whether they benefit the enterprise—in the eyes of the enterprise leaders—either enhance or diminish the CIO's credibility.

The whole process then becomes either a virtuous cycle or a downward spiral. Every success—success, again, being in the eyes of the leaders—builds more credibility. Every failure chips away at the CIO's credibility and, in the medium to long term, decreases his or her ability to gain "access rights" to participate on a daily basis in things that really matter to the business.

The ability to be "in sync" with the business requires building strong personal relationships, and being politically smart, with executive colleagues.

The only success metrics that ultimately matter for a CIO are those of his or her executive colleagues. n

Marianne Broadbent is senior vice president at Gartner Inc., responsible for Gartner's global research business strategy, and a Gartner Fellow. Her next column will appear in August.