CIOs share advice on gaining power and the qualities of a good leader

When it comes to gaining power, the most successful CIOs are ones who form coalitions, aren’t afraid to say no and give more than they take.

The IT director of a business unit within a large pharmaceutical company has some advice for gaining power in the enterprise: Stop being an order taker and use your common sense.

"Is your performance good? Do you understand what the business needs are and not just the requirements put in front of you? If so, that gives you power," he said. "Power comes down to common sense, really, but in general I don’t have time for power politics, and I don’t think it’s a battle worth fighting.”

Like this IT director, attendees at last week’s Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., shied away from on-the-record comments with SearchCIO.com about the politics of power. One theme was prevalent, however: IT executives and IT departments too often give power away by acting as order takers, never saying no to the business and treating end users like customers.

"What’s the No.1 rule? The customer is always right, so when you call end users or your internal stakeholders your customers, you are giving them the right to tell you what to do," said Tina Nunno, a research vice president in Gartner Inc.'s CIO Research group during a presentation at the conference on gaining power and the qualities of a good leader. Instead, call end users partners, colleagues or associates to break this cycle, she said.

As for not having time to play in the politics of power, however? Nunno said CIOs and other senior IT executives must make time. If they don’t, they won’t achieve inner-circle "influencer status" and will remain on the outskirts, executing other people’s strategies.

"I am not certain how you can be a strong leader if you are not comfortable with the concept of having and wielding power," she said. But that in itself is the rub, it seems. IT executives have a hard time believing that they deserve power, she said, and that trickles down to the IT department not believing it has the power to say no to a business request.

What are some of the telltale signs of a CIO without power? Nunno suggested asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have the power to wait and not jump when asked for something?
  • Is your office near the other C-suite executives?
  • Do you look the part of a business leader, or do you look like you're ready to crawl under a desk and fix a cable?
  • Do other executives ask you for advice, or to resolve conflicts?
  • Is your calendar filled with meetings with other executives?

These conclusions, as well as advice on how to build a power base, came out of CIO leadership case studies conducted by Gartner this year on the subject of gaining power. The research firm spoke with 30 CIOs employed in organizations from family-owned business to large, global public companies.

Qualities of a good leader and landmines to avoid

CIOs certainly don't operate on the outskirts of the enterprise. They touch more aspects of the business than any other member of the C-suite. Few projects can get done without their help. As one CIO said in the Gartner case study research: "Everybody needs me. There’s virtually nothing that they can do that I am not involved in. They can’t do a business process, gather new information, run a report or check email on their BlackBerry if I’m not involved. As a result, if they’re not nice to me, they might not get what they want."

CIO power maturity model

How powerful are you? Gartner ranks CIOs on five levels. See where you fall:

Level 1: Denial
CIOs in denial believe that power is a bad thing and should not be used because power used unwisely is why the world is inherently an unfair place.

Level 2: Nascent
Fairly new to the use of power, these CIOs overestimate the power of a job title. As a result, they overstep their bounds, said Tina Nunno, a research vice president at Gartner.

Level 3: Proficient
These CIOs can read the political landscape. They understand power positions and opt to stay neutral. By not taking a stand, however, these CIOs empower others, leaving a "tremendous opportunity to gain power on the table," Nunno said.

Level 4: Strong
CIOs at this level often influence the most senior people in the organization. They have developed the ability to say no and to shape demand. They also understand power dynamics, power patterns and coalitions in the organization and can tap into them as needed.

Level 5: Masters
These CIOs have personal power to spare. They don’t influence the seat of power; they are part of the seat of power. They empower other people in the organization and are best known for bringing people together when no one else can.
-- C.T.

That isn’t to say that CIOs have outright power to say no in all situations. As another CIO who participated in the research put it: "I rarely say no, but as a result my stakeholders know that when I say it I mean it, and therefore they respect that decision."

Gartner compiled a “scale of power” based on the survey results (see "CIO power maturity model," left); CIOs in level one are in denial, while those in level five are masters. Masters are able to bring people together, read the power landscape and understand the politics of politics unique to their organization.  

These CIOs said that gaining power came down to their ability to form coalitions or teams. CIOs are often involved in enterprise-wide projects such as cost reduction, centralization, consolidation or shared services. Such projects need the backing and involvement of many stakeholders. "These initiatives live and die based on whether you can get people to cooperate with each other," Nunno said. "So the ability to create coalitions is one of the most interesting determinants [of whether] a person can be successful. The CFO and CEO do not need a coalition, but CIOs have no choice. They must be extremely effective at bringing people together."

Case in point? One CIO at a large consulting firm used his position to act as chief negotiator between groups. As a result he was made a partner, an accomplishment virtually unheard of for a CIO at a consulting firm, Nunno said.

Another CIO did all his homework and presented a project to the CEO and business leaders. The CEO thought it was a great but fired the CIO anyway because he didn’t reach out to get the opinion of other stakeholders involved the project. Not forming coalitions or conducting trial-runs with peers will get you fired, Nunno said.

Reading the power landscape incorrectly will also shorten your career.

A private-sector CIO took a job as CIO in higher education. The chancellor of the institution agreed that the CIO could centralize and control the IT budget. The professors and various departments balked at this idea, and the chancellor reneged on his promise to let the CIO control the budget. The CIO lost his power base and left after a few months.

Choosing your political battles wisely is another characteristic of a master. One CIO lost his job because he formed the wrong alliance. The business-unit president -- his boss -- had a disagreement with the global CIO. Not understanding that the global CIO held more power over his career than the business-unit president, the CIO was fired by the global CIO for not taking his side, said Nunno.

A key to success? Gaining power wisely

The executive vice president of a large retailer, who asked not to be named, said her power strategy is going to be "giving more than she takes.” She has an enterprise architecture role that touches a lot of stakeholders, so her strategy to gain power for her group is to do favors, often.

This is a concept that Nunno calls “making more deposits than withdrawals.” Something as simple as giving the CEO and CFO the iPads that they covet is a simple, but powerful "deposit" that a CIO can make as a means of gaining power.

The CIO who balks at the idea of the iPad in the enterprise "because there is no business plan for it" may find that the CEO refuses to hand over $20 million for that next infrastructure project, she said. "You know the CEO is thinking 'You wouldn’t give me a $500 iPad, and now you want $20 million? No.' It’s human nature."

Reciprocation builds a CIO’s power base over time. The following are a few other ways that CIOs said they were able to build their power base, according to Gartner:

  • Providing staff to a stakeholder.
  • Completing a pet project for someone.
  • Bringing competing stakeholders together.
  • Successfully completing initiatives.
  • Giving an award to the owner of a project or project team (outside of IT).

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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