by Steve Bates

IT executive sponsors need to articulate a compelling vision

Mar 04, 2016
IT Leadership

Effective executive sponsors are directly and personally vested in the outcomes they oversee.

A friend recently asked for help shaping her new title and job description. On the surface it was a straight-forward ask: put together a compelling set of activities and outcomes summarizing all she does, then assign it a snappy name. Like most C-level technology executives of a large enterprise, she owns a wide span of control across IT operations, Risk, finance, suppliers, and innovation. I asked her what she felt was the highest, best use of her time in the organization. She thought about it and answered simply, “I’m responsible for recognizing opportunities and driving change.”

I pushed harder, “Isn’t that everyone’s job?” She agreed that it was certainly an organizational aspiration, but for now it was her core role to serve as an engaged, visionary, open and collaborative executive sponsor of the most important technology initiatives facing her company. It is her responsibility to use all available resources to articulate a compelling vision, remove barriers, leverage her network of relationships, set the bar for success, drive accountability, navigate politics, and create an environment of collaboration.

In my last post, I alluded to four critical traits that leading IT executives display when successfully running IT as a business by applying the principles of technology business management (TBM). The first, and most important, is the ability to take personal ownership of the TBM transformation as an executive sponsor. Too often we associate this role with having your name in the top box of the organogram on the first slide of a kickoff presentation. The sponsor may even attend a status meeting or handle occasional escalations. Method often mandates having a sponsor, but due to the volume of initiatives, operational demands, internal capabilities and disruption, the role becomes diminished.

However, for the executives who really understand the business of IT, the term “executive sponsor,” carries a meaningful weight — a role whose value is judged directly by the outcomes of the initiatives in which they are vested. They choose to put their personal brand at risk when endorsing this journey. 

Running IT as a business implicitly implies that the technology leader is acting in a chief executive role, fully empowered and capable to envision, articulate and drive organizational change. 

One recognized TBM leader, who is the CIO of leading financial services company, puts it this way: “When we made the decision to transform IT into a services-first organization, I knew there would be naysayers, a need for continuous investment, and quick results. I felt strongly enough about TBM that I made it part of my personal performance objectives, established an organization to create and sustain insights, and invited both internal and external third parties to assess our progress in running IT as a business.”

This tendency to invite scrutiny, to believe that transparency lies at the root of credibility, to engage in open dialogue, are the critical success factors for executive sponsors. In many cases, decades of history and distrust have created a chasm between finance, technology and the business. The executive sponsor who commits to breaking down those barriers must be both a compelling storyteller and a collaborative teammate. 

James LaPlaine, the CIO of AOL, says, “If we were going to transform this business, we needed to have buy-in from the highest levels of the company.” So James’ first stop was the CFO and a series of open iterative working sessions. He says that once they had her endorsement, winning over the rest of the executive team was pretty easy because she led in with the well-structured idea and described the transformative benefits to all.

In KPMG’s most recent TBM Proficiency Survey, we found that TBM programs that were owned by either a CIO or CFO were more than twice as likely to achieve operational cost-reduction targets. Every TBM Council award winner during the past three years has had a strong and engaged senior executive at the helm. Through a fact-based conversation on the cost, quality, consumption, and performance of IT services, successful executive sponsors are committed to identifying new opportunities and driving change in the organization. On the flip side, most failed or stalled TBM journeys can be directly linked to lack of a strategic imperative, lower management or siloed sponsorship, or inadequate time commitment from the named executive sponsor.

For a journey to recognize the full value of the IT investment and become successful, the executive sponsor must be more than a name or have a passing endorsement by a senior leader. Identify the person that feels the personal responsibility, the stewardship, to recognize opportunities and drive change.