by Allan Holmes

Leadership Techniques: How to Influence Colleagues

Nov 01, 200614 mins
Relationship Building

Last spring, Scott Heintzeman, CIO of Carlson Marketing , and his staff were developing new business intelligence systems. The project would support Carlson’s marketing business unit 1to1, which helps clients mine their customer data to create individualized direct-marketing materials. Carlson executives expected the business unit—a new line of business within the company—to be one of its top performers. Heintzeman knew he had to deliver, but he couldn’t do it on his own.

Heintzeman was not worried about the technology needed to support the unit. He was more concerned that 1to1 lacked a strong business leader—someone aggressive enough to establish business processes and rack up some quick wins, while personable enough to help employees through the inherent stress and uncertainty of a new venture. Heintzeman believed he knew someone who was right for the job: Janet Sparkman, the general manager of Carlson’s Gold Points Reward Network, a customer loyalty program that is one of Carlson’s core businesses. Heintzeman had worked with Sparkman previously and they worked well together. So he asked Sparkman to consider a job change. She flatly declined.

That’s when Heintzeman went to work, lining up support for his plan among other business leaders and assembling a dream team within IT to support Sparkman. He knew what attracted Sparkman to new ventures: “Janet isn’t going to join something that she cannot win,” Heintzeman says. “No way would she make that change if she did not have the right IT team to support her.”

Heintzeman’s initiative to weigh in on a strategic business issue is familiar to any executive but particularly challenging for CIOs, who have little formal power, observes Susan Cramm, a former CIO of Taco Bell who is now an executive coach (and a CIO columnist). Often, a CIO’s impact comes down to how good she is at convincing business leaders and end users—who don’t have to listen to her—to follow a strategy that the CIO deems important. “The ability to ‘lead from the back’ becomes essential for success,” says Cramm. “Without influence skills, CIOs are relegated to being order takers.”

To have influence, it’s not enough to be able to explain IT in an easy-to-understand way. To sway opinions and convince others to act, CIOs need expert knowledge of their subject and its relationship to the business, the ability to adapt their message to how their audiences like to learn, access to allies who will support their goal and the ability to vet ideas in a nonthreatening way.

We interviewed four CIOs who employ these and other techniques to influence the strategic direction of their companies. Their influence is directed toward a variety of goals. These include—in addition to Heintzeman’s effort to persuade an executive colleague to change jobs—redirecting an outsourcing strategy, persuading a senior executive to make a major IT investment and selling new technology to skeptical end users. Having influence requires developing relationships that are based on trust so that you gain allies inside and outside the IT department to vouch for you. “CIOs need to make sure they are investing in relationships all the time, because one day you will have to take a withdrawal,” Cramm says. “If you wait until something happens that requires you to rely on someone, [and] you don’t have any [capital] to withdraw from, you won’t be able to influence anything.”

How to Recruit a Business Leader:

Give Her the Team She Wants

Heintzeman knew it wasn’t his job to find a leader for the new business unit. And he understood that as the CIO, it would be difficult to convince his colleagues, particularly CEO Jim Shroer, that the company needed to shift some personnel. But when it comes to areas where he thinks he can help the company improve, Heintzeman says, “I make it my responsibility.”

First, Heintzeman had to contend with other business unit leaders who were skeptical of his idea. They included Shroer, who suggested instead purchasing a company that had the technology and management expertise Heintzeman was looking for. But Heintzeman argued that he could spend millions less by buying the technology himself and that Sparkman had the tenaciousness and the connections throughout the company to develop the 1to1 business successfully. Shroer changed his mind and began working on other executives.

Getting his boss on his side was a big victory, but Heintzeman still had to convince Sparkman. He turned back to his IT group and set to work building a team that would appeal to Sparkman. Heintzeman offered her Ben Leonard, one of his top project managers and someone Sparkman knew. He also hired Mike Bradway, an analyst and data modeling expert who had worked on one-to-one marketing campaigns for Target. In addition, Heintzeman promised Sparkman she could bring one of her own IT project managers, Kurt Wood, who worked directly with her Gold Points clients. Wood could apply his knowledge about those clients to the new IT system.

At that point, Sparkman “was beginning to see a team she knew and who were part of the top talent in the company,” Heintzeman says. “She knew I was serious.”

Finally, Heintzeman and Sparkman discussed how she could use the new systems he was building to sell 1to1 services to her existing Gold Points clients. “Bells and whistles started to go off then,” Heintzeman recalls. “She had a prestocked pond in which to start fishing. That tipped her over.”

It took Heintzeman six months to work the relationships he had throughout the company to get Sparkman to take the job. “I worked with what I had,” he says.

How to Redirect a Project:

Present the Facts

For Peter Walton, CIO with the global energy company Hess , it was an uncomfortable moment when the idea to conduct a global efficiency study was first introduced at an executive meeting in June 2005. Hess executives planned to study the company’s back-office operations such as finance, human resources and IT with the aim of outsourcing much of the work.

Walton wasn’t against outsourcing—he had already contracted out some software development and was considering some other functions. And he was excited by the company’s aggressive goals for improving its operations relative to its competitors. What concerned him was the approach—to hand the work over to a single vendor in India. Walton believed that the company should source specific functions to multiple companies that specialized in each area. Only after comparing the outsourcers’ costs and service levels to its internal costs could Hess determine if the outsourcing could benefit the company. “In all my years of experience, nobody has headed into a project like this without having an outsourcing strategy, and we didn’t have one,” Walton remembers thinking.

Walton knew that simply stating his opinion would not convince anyone of a different approach. A more effective way, he thought, would be to put together a presentation detailing the latest expert opinions on outsourcing and delivering it to those managers in charge of the project.

Providing facts from experts, Walton believed, would remove any chance that his position would be viewed as subjective. The first person he would have to convince was the project manager in charge of the efficiency study, John Douglas. Fortunately for Walton, he had worked with Douglas on a project two years prior, and the two had gotten to know each other. “There was some trust already there,” Walton says.

Back in his office, Walton combed through data he had collected during his three years as Hess’s CIO and picked out some key points. He included in his report two slides from the Concours Group that he had saved from a presentation he’d seen at a conference a few months earlier.

One slide, titled “A Blunder: The Wrong Way to Outsource,” presented the path that a global electronics manufacturing company took to outsource many of its IT functions. The company’s new CEO had promised to cut IT spending by 18 percent, but the goal had no connection to the company’s overall business strategy, according to the slide. Written on the slide were the consequences of the company’s approach: The company lost some top employees as well as its reputation as a great place to work, and the company was reworking its outsourcing contracts.

The second slide presented another case study, this one of a global financial services company. The company’s executives believed there was a looming shortage of critical IT skills that the company knew it needed. The company chose to outsource more than 60 percent of its IT staff to get those skills, giving the work to six vendors with operations in the United States, India, the Philippines and South America, which were chosen based on their expertise and cost. As a result, the company improved productivity, reduced costs and improved the level of IT skills available to them.

Walton sent the material to Douglas, who agreed to consider the more strategic view. After conducting additional research, Douglas brought in the Concours Group to make a presentation on sourcing strategy to the executive steering committee. Subsequently, Hess determined it would outsource different functions to separate companies specializing in the relevant fields.

“You need outside materials that have a wow factor that can hit [your audience] right between the eyes,” Walton says. “When you’re [looking at] a way of operating that is just like a case study that ended in failure, that’s powerful.”

How to Sell New Technology:

Play to Your Audience

When Partners HealthCare System CIO John Glaser met with his boss, CEO James Mongan, to pitch an investment in service-oriented architecture, he knew the meeting had the potential to be difficult. He wanted to introduce Mongan to a complex theory about IT and explain how it could be a strategic asset, but he knew Mongan had little patience for theory, and less for technical detail.

But today, Glaser is near to signing a contract to develop an SOA. He attributes his success to the simple fact that he took the time to understand how Mongan likes to receive new information. That’s something most CIOs fail to do, Glaser says. “If you don’t understand how they learn, it will be like talking to your teenage daughter,” says Glaser (who has one). “The root language you share may be the same, but you just have a very difficult time understanding one another.”

Glaser says discovering Mongan’s learning process was unscientific and took months. Glaser gathered intelligence by talking to colleagues who had met with Mongan, asking what worked and what didn’t and what his reaction was to certain approaches. He observed Mongan both in one-on-one meetings and in executive meetings, noting how he responded to presentations and different communication styles. He also asked Mongan directly about how he liked to have information presented. In essence, Glaser developed an intimate relationship with Mongan to know not only what made him tick, but how he ticked.

Attention to the details of how best to communicate with Mongan paid off for Glaser when he made his SOA pitch. When he first met with Mongan about the idea last year, he started with a presentation that illustrated how Partners hospitals and medical centers couldn’t share patient data. Glaser knew Mongan cared a lot about patient safety, so he described an example of how data about patient allergies and the incidence of diabetes weren’t accessible to all the medical professionals who needed to know. “That’s trouble,” Glaser remembers telling Mongan. “This is set up in a way that somebody could get hurt.”

Glaser then showed a slide that illustrated how a properly designed network could enable healthcare providers to share all patient data easily and more efficiently. Not until the end of the presentation did Glaser mention SOA. But when he did, he “equated the theory with how it works in real life and the business value with the term,” Glaser remembers. “That’s how he likes to learn.”

Glaser waited for Mongan’s reaction. He hoped the presentation, designed as it was to Mongan’s preferences, would elicit a dialogue. Soon Mongan stood up from his seat and walked to a large whiteboard. He drew a box on the left-hand side, representing patient data that was stored in database silos. He then drew a box on the right and, pointing to it, said, “If we had a common application here, wouldn’t that solve the problem?”

“Right Jim,” Glaser told Mongan, “but the challenge with that is it’s expensive and will drain our resources.” Mongan then drew a box in the middle, representing the SOA, tying together the application box and the databases box. “Right then I knew he had internalized it, made it his own,” Glaser says. “He understood it and was ready to take the next step.”

The lesson, Glaser says, is that everyone learns differently, and that successful communication requires more than not speaking IT jargon. It requires knowing your audience and tailoring your message accordingly.

How to Build Support for Change:

Talk to Everyone—A Lot

Sue Powers, CIO for Worldspan , relies on a methodology called “socializing an idea” to nudge, cajole and encourage her colleagues to consider a new IT system or business process.

The approach is an active one. It requires more than simply running an idea up the proverbial flagpole. Socializing means active engagement and interaction outside formal meetings, where people are less guarded. During casual conversations (in the hallway, in their offices, over lunch), people are more at ease and more willing to discuss change. They also are more likely to discuss their objections to an idea, making it possible to come up with solutions. “In a formal setting, people can feel pushed into an idea,” Powers says. “This way they feel they can be more honest.”

For example, a few years ago, Powers wondered why Worldspan couldn’t get the same Internet access deal she had at home: an inexpensive DSL connection. At the time, Worldspan, which operates travel reservation systems, spent $400 to $500 a month for a fairly low-bandwith connection linking the company to its travel agent customers. Worldspan CTO David Lauderdale picked up on the idea and began talking with Worldspan’s 650-member technology team about how much more flexible and efficient a standard IP network could be. The technology team was sold, but they had to convince the rest of the company. And then the objections came fast and furious. Some business managers speculated that travel agents wouldn’t want to buy their own PCs and Internet service, preferring to have Worldspan provide their connectivity. Others worried about the technology transition. Salespeople said Worldspan could not get out of its contracts, which required Worldspan to provide dedicated service and equipment.

But Powers and her team persevered. They spent several weeks bringing the idea up again and again with business colleagues and customers during lunch, after company meetings, at after-hours get-togethers, at company functions, or during any casual conversation. Powers didn’t emphasize cost savings (although the new system would ultimately save tens of millions of dollars); instead she solicited reactions to the potential benefits of the change (the new system would be more reliable, easier to maintain and simpler to use). “The early feedback [from these initial conversations] caused us to think more about what was in this for everybody, and we were able to better think through the benefits for customers and salespeople,” Powers says. “We ended up with a better plan.” (To read about a process for influencing change once a project is underway, see “The Influence Continuum,” Page 54)

Powers used the feedback from her informal discussions to write a business case for the new system, and her plan was immediately approved. When it came time to rewrite customers’ contracts, the travel agents were sold on the added benefits they would get. Worldspan completed its rollout of the DSL network last year. “Getting people involved early by just talking with them allowed us to overcome objections and actually have a better sales plan,” Powers says. “By the time we did the business plan, we had everybody pretty much on board.”