A few weeks ago a major IT services group stirred up the old "IT director on the board" debate all over again with fresh evidence that they are misunderstood, unloved and mistrusted by their bosses. Their research suggested that to become part of the inner circle you have to talk like a CEO. I was so incensed I wrote them the classic "disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" letter. But, on reflection, they are making a real point here, so who's to blame?
IT can contribute to an organisation broadly on three levels and good CIOs deliver at all of them. The problem is that many get stuck in the mire.
At the lowest level IT is still the ultimate service deliverer and few if any large organisations could function today without the support of effective information systems reliably delivered to a high standard. Everybody accepts this, and understands that it is problematic, but few on the board truly understand the difficulties involved.
More than this, many organisations over the last decade at least have been actively seeking to use IT to add value to various parts of the business. This is obviously not something an IT department can impose, so relationships, teamworking, and effective dialogue become more important - and this is where the "talking techie" criticism is born out.
Relationships have to be built on solid foundations. The business has to trust you to deliver what have said you will, within time and budget. They know it is difficult but they don't care
The ultimate level of IT contribution is when the CEO invites you to help rethink and create the future of the entire organisation. This, of course, is what we are constantly told CIOs should be doing, but it only happens when the CEO believes you have something of value to contribute at this level and the top team trusts you.
Instead of wondering whether you will be invited to sit at the strategy table, you should ask: "Am I adding the kind of value that would influence strategy discussions? Do I have a broad understanding of the business and knowledge of how the different components fit together? Have I built relationships with other executive directors?"
This last point has become more important with each decade. It works through building and maintaining rapport and then delivering on promises. IT creates dependencies very quickly and while it may be fine for the research, manufacturing, distribution and sales functions of a large group to work relatively independently of each other, IT needs to be able to work with, support and create value with all of them simultaneously.
Here is where I agree with the research. Trust is absolutely key: each executive director has to trust you will deliver. Is that true in your organisation?
So, in the spirit of learning to talk like a CEO, here's my three-point plan for ultimate success:
- Manage technical delivery to a high standard. Use whatever help you need to ensure your team is up with the best and is operating effectively. Maybe indulge yourself with a bit of leadership development. If it works for you think about others you depend upon to be effective leaders.
- Ensure your customers have realistic expectations and keep your promises. This is important and you should practice on your spouse for immediate feedback (forget anniversaries and break promises as an experiment in a safe environment). You may be surprised how quickly your relationships respond.
- Look to your laurels. How do you deserve to be treated? What are you good for? Ask around. How much value do you create at the three levels. Oh, and learn to talk like a CEO.
Are you a mover and shaker?
Do you have influence at board level or are you regarded as just a trusted servant of the elite? What do you see as the key to winning greater influence? Let us know with an e-mail.
Brinley Platts is the founder executive and business development manager of the IMPACT Programme, a leading network for CIOs.