Big universities are like holding companies: We have several different businesses (in our case, colleges and administrative departments) that provide their own services and products under a single brand. Obviously there are inefficiencies in this environment, and my job as Purdue University's CIO is to reduce resource duplication and provide centralized services. But I have limited control. Half of Purdue's 1,000 IT staff are located in the colleges and departments, and I have little authority in those areas. For example, if I decline a purchase request, our colleges and departments can make the purchase with their own budgets. Therefore, my primary course of action to accomplish my objectives is through collaboration and influence.
The raw ingredients of influence are straightforward: You have a story about a problem or an opportunity you want to address, a logical argument for your position and the supporting evidence for it. You mix those ingredients in proportions that seem right for the decision makers you are targeting. But it's the approach that you choose to follow that can make or break your success. There are very few people anywhere with the reputation or personal magnetism to make things happen purely on their own. The way people like me get things done is to get others to help us. To do this, I first concentrate on a small number of opinion makers who aren't necessarily in charge, but who are close to the top and help form others' opinions. Being able to identify those opinion leaders and make them your allies is the secret sauce of influence.
Identify Your Allies
At Purdue's Krannert School of Management, where I was the assistant dean before taking the university CIO job earlier this year, I knew who the opinion leaders were and knew them well. I also knew which people thought they were opinion leaders but really weren't. Now at the university level, there are a lot of people I don't know, and I'm trying to discern who the players are. Being sophisticated professionals, even if they are not relevant opinion leaders, they know how to create the impression that they are. To help me see past that, I have a trusted business-side ambassador in each area who can tell me whom the players are.
Be More Strategic
Then it's up to me to verify that I know the right people to influence. To do this, I arrange to be part of a collaborative situation with them—such as a project or committee—and I start to build a relationship. I'll observe whether the people follow up, keep their word and have a good sense of the pulse of their group.
I'll usually try something small early on—something about which it doesn't really matter whether I win or lose—and see how the relationship plays out. For example, I might suggest to a hiring officer that we involve IT people in the interview processes for a faculty or administrative position. The hiring officer may make that happen, or tell you no way. Or she might be initially supportive of the idea but it never quite works out. Whatever happens, you'll discover whether this person is someone you can work with.
When I have an idea, my general strategy is to sound it out with the people who advise the person I'm trying to influence. Most people, when you pitch them something big, will have a couple of people they talk to about it. So my first pitch is to those "sounding board" people. I don't ask them to bring my idea up with the decision maker herself; instead, I ask them what they believe the decision maker will think about it. I listen to how they poke at my idea, and from those conversations I'll determine whether I'm good to go, whether I need to tweak my pitch or whether my proposal is likely to be dead on arrival.
Only rarely will I come on strong and let the decision makers know without a doubt that I want something I believe is critical to the university and thus to me. I will already have sounded out the people around them—and if necessary, applied pressure from underneath and sometimes from above—so that they know I'm going to do everything in my power to make this happen. That's not a tool you want to use every time you need to influence someone because you use up a lot of credibility with such an all-or-nothing approach.
Let Your Allies Influence You
I always keep in mind that collaboration is a two-way street. People want to influence us, too, and we have to let ourselves be open to that. There are opportunities for collaboration even when decision makers think we've made a mistake.
An example: The college of engineering is putting up a new building. The university's process for installing wireless services is to wait until the building is finished before we design and implement the system. There are some reasonable engineering reasons for doing it that way, but the process also derives from our experience, which comes mostly from retrofitting existing buildings.
The dean of engineering called me to tell me this wasn't satisfactory. To her, it looked like we had dropped the ball. So I consulted with my technical people, then with the university architect who is managing the building construction. We concluded that it's better to tweak the wireless installation after it's installed than to wait until the building is finished. The architect and I went back to the dean with an accelerated schedule for wireless network installation and a plan to revise how we do wireless in all new construction.
The dean feels rightly that her influence has improved our institutional processes. Because I took her complaints seriously, I may be able to turn to her the next time I need something. Additionally, I have established a new relationship with the university architect.
Competency in collaboration and influence is not something you can switch on. You have to follow some basic rules, such as always being honest, and work hard to avoid being defensive. You can study your fellow executives to pick up their techniques. But mostly you've got to get in there and practice to find your own style. It's like negotiation; you'll win some, you'll lose some. But by becoming an expert in strategic collaboration, your business will be better off for your efforts.
Gerry McCartney is vice president of IT and CIO of Purdue University and a member of the CIO Executive Council.