Feature

Politics, persuasion and the path to the top IT post

Somebody once joked that you can tell an extrovert in the IT department because, "when he talks to you, he looks at your shoes instead of his own".

The joke makes a cruel but serious point. We all know that kind of painfully introverted personality. We may even recognise ourselves in the awkward scene it paints.

Whether it is true is debatable, but it is certainly the popular image of IT staff, and one that needs to be shaken off if the IT profession is to take its rightful place at management's top table.

Image is especially important now that IT is supposed to be closely aligned with business strategy and every new investment is judged on the returns it delivers. The upshot of this is that senior IT managers need to acquire the skills to communicate complex messages to non-specialists, and to develop their powers of persuasion to get their way.

But according to someone who has studied this subject over the years, we are in danger of creating an ever widening gap between IT and the rest of the business.

"When we did our research into IT professionals who had made it to CEO, we found that most of them are of retiring age," says Robina Chatham, a consultant and lecturer at Cranfield School of Management. "They went into IT at a time when there were no rulebooks or methodologies it was more a seat-of-the-pants approach. You had to use intuition and gut-feel and do the best with what you had."

That attracted a certain type of person: the big-picture, intuitive type who probably got on well with the senior management of the company. Now, Chatham says, "IT is so wrapped up with standards, procedures, controls and methodologies, and we are so scared in terms of security breaches, that IT is attracting people that are increasingly risk-averse."

Chatham's basic belief is that to operate effectively in a corporate environment, you need to understand politics and how to play the political game. She even wrote a book on the subject back in 2000, "Corporate Politics for IT Managers", and has regularly delivered courses on the subject at Cranfield and through her own consultancy business.

Her thinking is based on the classic Myers-Briggs definition of people, which breaks individuals down into 16 distinct character types (see table below). Chatham explains that IT people tend to fall into the group that thinks logically and likes clear rules for doing things, which is why they struggle with the idea of politics.

"They don't like politics, but it is a fact of life," she says. "Politics doesn't have to be a dirty word you can still build relationships without trying to shaft somebody or get one over on them. It's about give and take. But they struggle with the concept."

To be fair, she says, senior IT people tend to be quite good at building relationships "downwards and outwards" with their teams, and with end-users and peers in other departments, but when it comes to talking to the boss or senior board members, they struggle to connect effectively.

And that is the problem. According to Greg Harris, sales director at Global Resourcing, a recruitment company that does a lot of work in the financial services sector, organisations are increasingly looking for broader management skills and the ability to engage effectively with the business. "The terms we see more these days in job specifications are 'strategic thinking', 'delivering solutions' and analysing the business requirements'", Harris says. "Businesses are becoming more demanding of the IT department both in getting good value for money and good service."

He says that IT directors need to have a level of technical understanding, coupled with project management skills and the ability to work closely with business stakeholders. "It is more about understanding the key players in the business and understanding their needs, and feeding them back to the IT department," he says.

Harris says he spends much of his time trying to manage down the expectations and demands of his clients.

"One senior position with a major financial institution has been open for three months," he says. "They have interviewed 35 people so far. They have made offers to two people who've taken other offers. With some companies, the demands are too high."

Companies are also less ready to take risks with someone who has not already proved themselves at the top level. This tends to perpetuate the problem and prevents people who might have potential from getting a chance.

Harris also raises the question of corporate politics and the distaste it engenders in many IT people. "With larger scale businesses, you've got to be prepared to play the political game," he says. "It's important to understand the corporate mentality, to have strength in the financial aspects of the job, and to know who to influence to drive through your strategic goals. Only so many people can take that on."

Many IT people retain a strong interest in technology, and they will prefer to stick to that side of things rather than have the pressures of playing the corporate game.

"Some of the people we work with have PhDs and do very complex work and get very well paid for it," says Harris, "but they are never going to lead the company forward."

The solution is not really clear. "There was a trend 10 years ago when IT directors were seen as a bit too geeky and not relating to the business, and they started bringing in business managers and putting them in as head of IT," says Chatham. "But they ended up doing a worse job than their predecessors because they lacked the technical knowledge and the respect of their staff. That proved even more disastrous."

So the industry has moved back to recruiting people with a technical background, but maybe with broader experience gained through working across a number of sectors. The problem still remains, however. The very qualities that make you good at IT - keeping everything safe and secure, and attention to detail - may make you a trusted and valued servant of the organisation, says Chatham, but will also create a bigger gap between you and the classic chief executive, who is likely to be a much more intuitive type of character.

Part of the challenge she tackles in her courses is to convince IT people that politics is more about getting on with people, and does not necessarily involve low cunning and deceit. "They think it's others who play politics, not them," she says. "They think politics is being dishonest."

Through exercises and various role-play exercises, she tries to demonstrate that everyone plays politics in some way, but many of her delegates fight against the idea. "We were talking about networking and building relationships, and someone said, 'People should not need to like you to work for you or do something for you. They should do it because it's part of their job.' But the world doesn't work like that. If we have a list of priorities, we'll put the person we get on with at the top."

Chatham has to convince them that being right is not enough. "For a lot of these IT people with ISTJ personalities, it is all about logic and analysis, and therefore there is a right answer. But that does not guarantee it will be done or that is the best way to get it done," she says.

Going on one of Chatham's courses will not turn you from a detail-obsessed introvert into a big-picture extrovert, of course. The aim is more to get people to understand their own character types and those of the people they will run up against in business. If you can identity the personality type you are dealing with, you can tailor what you say to make it more acceptable for them. It gives you more power to control the situation.

Chatham draws the analogy with learning a foreign language. You are unlikely ever to speak the language as well as a native, but at least you can go some way to making yourself understood and understanding them.

The same goes for dealing with the board. You need to adopt the language of the board, and express your wishes in terms of risk, reward and opportunity. Bombard them with three-letter acronyms and you'll have lost them forever.

Remember that the chief executive and the board have a range of issues to consider, and IT may not be a major concern. The things that concern IT should be put in context of the business as a whole.

One final point. The growing gap between IT staff and the relationship-building types that companies appear to want, could create an opportunity for women to enter IT's top positions. Chatham points out that women, who account for just one in seven of her students, tend to be better at handling the political side of the job and negotiating solutions.

But all the figures show fewer women being attracted to the industry, just as the point when it seems that their skills could be a prime asset.

 

Myers-Briggs character types

Researchers Myers and Briggs used Jungian psychology to come up with a way of determining different personality types. By asking a series of questions, they were ability to determine a person's psychological profile against four key polarity measures:

  • extrovert or introvert (E or I)
  • sensing or intuitive (S or N)
  • thinking or feeling (T or F)
  • judging or perceiving (J or P)

The various combinations of these preferences produce 16 unique personality types. Therefore, the ISTJ types that Chatham finds typical in IT are introverts who likely to rely on evidence and logic for all their decisions. Gut-feel tends to be a fairly alien concept to ISTJs.

The table below shows the results of a Myers-Briggs type indicator test conducted on a sample of 100 IT managers. Sensing, thinking and judgement were all attributes of 46% of the sample.

ISTJ
23% 

ISFJ 
1%

INFJ 
1%

INTJ
9% 

 ISTP
10%

ISFP
0% 

INFP
0% 

INTP
12% 

 ESTP
5%

 ESFP
0%

 ENFP
2%

 ENTP
5%

 ESTJ
20%

 ESFJ
1%

 ENFJ
1%

 ENTJ
10%

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This was first published in January 2008

 

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