Great CIOs Are Politically Savvy

Despite all our objective metrics, executing a business strategy requires a personal touch, says Brand Velocity's Jack Bergstrand

Every IT professional has been taught how important it is to be objective. To that end, we have budgets, planning methods, scorecards and metrics that are supposed to be numerically based. And, as a result, we have no shortage of red lights, green lights and yellow lights to keep us focused.

But to succeed in strategic business initiatives, we have to work with many people, and you may have noticed that we humans aren't always 100 percent objective. And even if we were, our personal forms of objectivity are often in conflict. Different stakeholders have different visions and goals, work on different time frames, have different backgrounds and have varying areas of expertise. (Just think of the different points of view you see among the top executives of finance, HR, engineering and marketing departments.) Yet for strategic initiatives to be successful, executives also need the subjective management skills to get key people on the same page, keep them on it, and make sure they're headed in the same direction.

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, pointed out that to get better organizational results, leaders should take a social-science-based approach. In other words, it requires social skills as well as objective metrics.

This is the productive use of political savvy, which is a sincere effort to bring people together to turn strategy into results--not the backstabbing, self-aggrandizing, double-crossing tactics that give corporate politics a bad name.

No Rope-Climbing Required

The social aspect of being strategically successful has little to do with the tactic that many executives use to deal with the problem, which is: "Let's have a team-building exercise!" Yuck! Strong teams are critical, but a team-building event is too often what managers do when they don't know what to do. Making strategy work has very little to do with climbing ropes, having offsite sessions and taking Myers-Briggs tests. One of the biggest problems I see in cross-functional strategic initiatives is that managers mistakenly think that the holy grail is "alignment." Alignment is usually hogwash. It's often code for "I'll do what I want, you do what you want, and let's keep one another informed via a predetermined set of worthless meetings."

Harsh? I don't think so. At this magazine's CIO 100 event in August, several CIOs mentioned that they were trying to stop using the term "alignment" and replace it with "integration." With alignment you can avoid working interdependently. With integration, you can't. Integration requires the tough choices that make strategic initiatives successful.

Great CIOs are savvy--in a healthy and honest way--when it comes to corporate politics. They have a personal touch. They are perceptive about where key people are coming from. They see similarities and disconnects among the various stakeholders. They're able to respectfully and effectively identify the trade-offs that any strategy requires, and communicate those trade-offs to people at any level of the corporate hierarchy.

So, as a strategic CIO, don't disregard objectivity, but put it in its proper context. You'll need to continually know where your strategic stakeholders intend to go and why (which is subjective), what therefore needs to happen and when (which is objective), how to best deliver those priorities (which is objective), and who is motivated to do them with distinction (which is subjective).

It's often not easy, but it's worth it. The truth is that political savvy is essential to making strategy work.

Jack Bergstrand is founder and CEO of Brand Velocity, a consultancy that helps companies implement critical business initiatives. 

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