by Meridith Levinson

Relationships: The Art of the Shmooze

Apr 15, 200216 mins
Relationship Building

Nestled in plush velour seats, Dr. Charles Hornaday, his wife and his daughter sat rapt as they watched the Louisville Ballet’s production of Do You Dare at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

After the dancers curtsied and took their bows, after the applause and bravos faded away, the Hornadays went backstage to attend a private reception. There, they met up with their host, the man who had provided their tickets, Alfred Barea, CIO of Louisville, Ky.-based Baptist Healthcare and then-member of the Louisville Ballet’s board of trustees. Barea approached Hornaday, who was at the time president of the medical staff at Baptist Healthcare. The two men exchanged pleasantries, and then Barea excused himself so that the Hornadays could get back to the party.

Barea didn’t have a specific reason for inviting the Hornadays to the ballet that evening in November 1997, other than the fact that Hornaday was his personal physician. He knew, however, that Hornaday was a power at Baptist, and “I knew this was somebody I needed to get close to because he was the president of the medical staff and because he was interested in computers,” says Barea.

Six months later, Sue Tamme, president of Baptist Hospital East?one of six hospitals in the Baptist system?turned up in Barea’s office. He needed a physician from her hospital to be part of the steering committee Barea had set up to oversee the implementation of the new McKesson electronic patient record system that would take the place of handwritten notes and charts. The system was already running in three of the six Baptist hospitals, but two, Baptist Regional Medical Center and Western Baptist Hospital, absolutely, positively wanted nothing to do with it. After all, who was Barea?a CIO, not a medical man?to tell them how to manage their patients’ care?

Barea knew that ultimately the physicians would have no choice. If Baptist didn’t start running the system voluntarily, the federal government would eventually force them to use something like it to crack down on the industrywide problem of medical errors. But Barea also knew the system would be adopted more easily?and would in fact work better?if the doctors came on board willingly. Tamme suggested that he ask Hornaday to join the committee, and today, Hornaday is a vocal supporter of using the system throughout the entire health-care organization. And although Baptist Regional and Western Baptist are still not running it, Barea is confident that with Hornaday’s support, the hospitals will be on the system by next year.

When Barea, who had previously worked at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in Spartanburg, S.C., arrived at Baptist in 1997 as its new CIO, he understood instinctively that meeting important people in the community and throughout Baptist Healthcare would be a critical part of his job. And he knew the ballet would be a good place to learn who those people were. In fact, joining the ballet board has paid off in ways Barea hadn’t even imagined. “I never dreamed I’d be able to use it with the doctors by offering them free tickets to the ballet,” he says. When it dawned on him that he could build relationships and make deposits in the favor bank this way, he took advantage of it. And he still does.

The Science of Shmoozing

It may come as a surprise to CIOs who think that a nose to the grindstone is all they need to keep their projects and career on track, but to a significant degree, project success depends as much on whom you know as on what you do or how you do it. Experienced CIOs agree that ongoing support from executives and influential colleagues is the only way to ensure successful project implementations.

To foster, cultivate and maintain that backing, CIOs must confront one of their biggest challenges: keeping stakeholders involved. “As I look back on my career, maintaining executive interest in long-term projects was always something I could improve on,” says Pat Zilvitis, former CIO of Gillette in Boston and consulting CIO for Manchester, N.H.-based Segway, which developed Ginger, Dean Kamen’s human transporter.

“A lot of IT professionals are way more comfortable implementing than spending time day-to-day with senior management,” Zilvitis continues. “It’s too easy to go to a high-level meeting, sell a concept and walk away to execute it without thinking about keeping other people involved. Maintaining that involvement requires you to reach out of your comfort zone.”

Leaving one’s comfort zone literally means stepping out of IT’s friendly confines, shelving the PowerPoint presentations and seeking out opportunities to talk to people. If CIOs don’t build relationships with the right people, they’ll have difficulty pulling off projects?not to mention keeping a steady job. According to Bill Hagerup, a senior associate and workshop facilitator with Ouellette & Associates Consulting, an IT development organization in Bedford, N.H., a CIO’s inability to influence, negotiate, and establish trust and credibility with senior leadership is the single most significant factor in explaining why CIOs fail.

And CIOs shouldn’t wait to reach out until they need to rally support for a specific project. They should do it anytime, anywhere. For example, when Zilvitis was at Gillette, he took advantage of chance meetings in the company gym to update his peers on what IT was doing. “The challenge is to keep the critical elements of what the CIO does prominent in the minds of the functional executives so that when you need support, you can get it,” he says.

Barea courts colleagues at social events. Yusef Akyuz, CIO and senior vice president of IT for Stride Rite, pounds the pavement in the shoemaker’s Lexington, Mass., office. “I like to meet my [internal] customers in their offices. It gets the message across that I’m empathetic to their needs,” he says. Downers Grove, Ill.-based ServiceMaster CIO Jim Goetz says that informal encounters are extremely valuable for connecting with important executives.

These CIOs understand the importance of shmoozing. And they understand that the key to successful shmoozing is to keep in practice. Then, when the CEO turns to you in the elevator and asks you to explain why that e-business implementation is six months late and $6 million short, you can do so with sprezzatura, an Italian word that refers to the ability to execute difficult tasks gracefully. The Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura was propounded by Baldassare Castiglione, author of Il Courtegiano (The Book of the Courtier), a series of dialogues on courtly behavior, whose messages about navigating the corridors of power are as relevant today as they were in the 16th century.

To be successful, a CIO must possess some of the qualities of Castiglione’s ideal courtier, such as frankness, a dignified comportment and, of course, sprezzatura. But instead of turning to Castiglione for advice, let’s sit at the feet of Akyuz, Goetz and Zilvitis, and listen to the dialogues in which they engaged their colleagues.

Dialogue 1: In the locker room Enter the CIO, pursued by an angry VP.

Pat Zilvitis, then-CIO at Boston-based Gillette, had just finished his workout in the building’s gym and had staggered into the locker room to change when a vice president for one of Gillette’s geographical regions approached him.

It was 1998, and Gillette was in the middle of a painful ERP deployment. The company’s sales force and distribution center staff were struggling to learn new processes while trying to ship orders and serve customers.

The vice president, who had also been working out, was not happy. “One of my premier customers is complaining that I can’t deliver the right products at the right place and time, and I think it’s because of the new system,” he said, by which he meant Zilvitis’s system. Why, the vice president asked angrily, did his customer get only partial fulfillment on an order when there were enough products between two Gillette warehouses to fill the order completely?

The vice president had a right to be upset. Gillette had what the customer needed. The problem was that the products were not stored all in one warehouse but in two. Prior to the ERP implementation, shipping from multiple warehouses wasn’t a logistical problem; it was the way things were done. It was, however, a financial problem, adding significant costs to Gillette’s bottom line. Gillette aimed to cut these costs by setting up rules that instructed the new order-fulfillment system to ship only from the warehouse geographically closest to the account. Unfortunately, that meant the vice president’s customer got shorted and the vice president was miffed.

Taken aback by his colleague’s question and his testy tone, Zilvitis had to compose his response quickly. He answered honestly and directly.

The customer, in this case, was not the issue. Shipping products from two or more warehouses, Zilvitis explained, simply cost the company too much money. Shipping from one warehouse, and one warehouse only, was the way the ERP system was configured from the get-go. The vice president might not like it. The customer might not like it. Even Zilvitis might not like it. But that’s the way it was.

“Oh,” the bemused vice president responded. Though Zilvitis’s answer didn’t solve the vice president’s customer service problem, at least it was an explanation he could understand. Then the two set out to determine a way to ship full orders to customers without incurring extra costs.

If Zilvitis had been confronted by the vice president in an official meeting, the CIO might not have been able to answer as directly. Admitting that the customers’ interests may not have been foremost in designing this aspect of the ERP system could have led to a drawn-out battle over company strategy, with people taking sides across the mahogany table.

It was also better that Zilvitis’s conversation took place in the locker room because the casual environment allowed the vice president to get his anger off his chest. Once that happened, he could relax and listen while Zilvitis leveled with him, peer to peer.

The other lesson from Zilvitis is not to wait for interactions like that one in the gym but to seek them out. It may mean simply walking over to someone’s office to begin a dialogue. Though Zilvitis’s encounter was somewhat confrontational, yours doesn’t have to be. If you reach out and begin the dialogue with your colleagues on the business side, as you’ll see in the following example, you’ll be much better prepared to answer their questions and less likely to find yourself in a confrontational situation.

Dialogue 2: In the hotel lobbyA weary CIO works the room.

Around 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2001, the top executives of Downers Grove, Ill.-based ServiceMaster, an enterprise that owns and operates 11 home service companies including TruGreen ChemLawn lawn care, Terminix pest control and Merry Maids cleaning service, drifted into the grand lobby of the luxurious Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. The executives had just finished 10 hours of meetings about the company’s Six Sigma initiative and were checking their voice mail messages on their mobile phones and chatting. Ducks paddled around the marble fountain in the center of the lobby. A pianist tickled the ivories on a Steinway.

Fighting fatigue, CIO Jim Goetz resisted the urge to retire to his room. Instead, he began working the lobby. In Goetz’s opinion, these opportunities to speak with colleagues outside the office are best used to get their perspectives on business initiatives in order to align them with his own projects, not simply to build personal relationships with small talk and chitchat.

That summer CEO Jon Ward had announced a Six Sigma project to improve the company’s customer service. To establish a baseline, the company needed to gather information on what was important to customers and compile statistics on the service representative’s performance in the field. Goetz created a database to store the information. Then he added Web-enabled reporting tools so that ServiceMaster’s retail branches could feed the database and the Six Sigma team could access it.

Some of the branch employees were resistant to using the Web because the interface looked and felt so different from the legacy systems to which they were accustomed. Some of the divisional presidents were also resistant to the project but for a different reason. Goetz’s approach?a centralized database that all the divisions were required to use?was philosophically new to ServiceMaster and, perhaps, threatening to the divisions that were used to initiating and implementing projects on their own. Goetz’s project, in contrast, was spearheaded by a companywide team composed mostly of corporate IT staff.

Goetz had two challenges: to sell the branch employees on the utility of the Internet as a reporting tool into the database, and to convince the divisions of the value of a centralized implementation. “[Centralization] is my biggest challenge, and I use every opportunity to talk about it,” he says.

Back in the lobby, Goetz collected himself. It doesn’t matter how tired I am. This is my one opportunity to catch someone, identify with him and sell him on the Internet as a way to deliver Six Sigma improvements, he told himself.

He approached a division president who was talking with the president of another division. He waited for a pause in their conversation and then broke in by asking about a topic that had come up during that day’s meeting.

“What do you think about devoting your best people solely to the Six Sigma initiative?” Goetz asked.

“It’s going to be hard, but it’s worth doing,” the president responded, emphasizing the word hard.

By agreeing to assign his best people exclusively to the new initiative, the division president was showing his support for the Six Sigma project. But Goetz interpreted the stress on hard as a signal that the president had significant reservations about the centralized process. Goetz knew he’d have his work cut out for him to convince the division president of the value of a cross-departmental team and technology.

Next, Goetz approached CEO Ward, who was seated at one of the lobby’s cherry wood tables. On Nov. 27, two weeks before the meeting at the Peabody, the company had signed an agreement with Home Depot to jointly market ServiceMaster’s landscaping, pest control, plumbing, and carpet and upholstery cleaning services in 30 Home Depot stores. The partnership required local ServiceMaster outlets to accept orders placed by Home Depot customers online at Home Depot’s in-store Internet kiosks. Goetz needed to know what Ward’s expectations were so that he could align them with his own deadlines for hooking up with the Home Depot stores. Ward wanted Goetz to assure him that ServiceMaster would be able to go live on Feb. 15. Goetz told Ward that he’d do whatever was necessary to meet that deadline.

Finally, after feeling that he had touched all the bases he needed to, Goetz dragged himself upstairs and slept soundly in the belief that opportunity had knocked, and he had answered.

The moral of Goetz’s tale is to use informal conversations with colleagues to understand their position on issues. This is how you identify your allies and determine a strategy to convert your enemies. Once you know where your colleagues stand, you know who will be supportive of IT’s work, and whose negative attitude toward either IT or the strategy might derail the project. The following example illustrates another way to win friends and influence people.

Dialogue 3: Walking the halls practicing random acts of kindness

Courtiers, according to Castiglione, won favor by showering their princes with precious gifts. CIOs would do well to follow the same model, although they needn’t spend extravagant sums on fancy PDAs or Mont Blanc pens. A simple gesture may be enough. Such was the case with Yusef Akyuz, CIO and senior vice president of IT for Stride Rite in Lexington, Mass.

While making his rounds of the office last spring, Akyuz popped in on Rick Thornton, president of the company’s Tommy Hilfiger division. Thornton mentioned to Akyuz that his nephew was interested in a career in telecommunications or networking and asked Akyuz if he could dig up some information on the field.

Now, Akyuz had other things to do besides researching colleges and the finer points of Cisco switches. Yet he recognized the request as an opportunity to do a colleague a favor and build a relationship. It didn’t hurt that Thornton’s request was a subtle way for him to indicate that he acknowledges and trusts Akyuz’s judgment and respects his expertise.

So Akyuz immediately went to work. He asked some of his direct reports about training facilities, did some research on the Web and talked to people on his staff who had taken courses in networking.

Soon after, the two executives met in Stride Rite’s brightly colored, sunny cafeteria over salads and sandwiches. Akyuz told Thornton what he had found on colleges, and training and certification programs. From there, they moved on to business. Thornton mentioned how helpful it would be if the members of his sales force had a way to capture their observations about the presentation and placement of Tommy Hilfiger footwear and signs compared with other shoes when they were in a store. Akyuz thought what Thornton was describing sounded like a knowledge management system.

“We agreed that it would be a good thing to do and that this would be something we would take on in the future,” says Akyuz. And one thing Akyuz knows he won’t have to worry about when he does take it on is salespeople not using the system?a problem that has ruined many knowledge management projects. Thanks to the relationship the CIO has cultivated with the head of the Hilfiger division, Stride Rite’s new KM system will have a staunch supporter in Thornton. If the salespeople drag their feet about using it, they will have to deal with their own boss, not the head of a faraway IS department.

Consider doing small favors as part of your CIO job. It will help you improve your standing with your colleagues and enable you to stack political chips that you can cash in when a big project comes up.

Business folk have begun to understand the value that a CIO brings to an organization, but to some degree the attitude that CIOs lack business acumen and the skills necessary for completing IT projects on time and on budget endures. If CIOs want to completely eradicate that prejudice, they have to step out of their department and spend more time getting to know their business partners both personally and professionally. What Castiglione wrote about in the 16th century still applies: Cultivating allies and rubbing elbows with the people in power are the keys to project and professional success. And that’s why experienced CIOs like Akyuz, Barea, Goetz and Zilvitis spend time perfecting the art of the shmooze.