by Lafe Low

Politics is a Fact of Life for IT Leaders

Apr 01, 20048 mins
IT Leadership

Politics is a term with a bad smell. For most people, it conjures up images of shady backroom deals and conniving people who push through their own agendas, usually at the expense of others. But if politics is a dirty word, then roll up your sleeves. Political skills are essential for every CIO. And you don’t have to sell your soul to master them.

“Any time you get three people together, you’ve got politics. It’s a reality of human relations,” says Doug Barker, CEO of Barker & Scott Consulting and former CIO of The Nature Conservancy. “It means you have stakeholders who have a vested interest in the outcome. You need to recognize those vested interests and move toward situations that can create win-wins.”

Not every politically charged situation will be fraught with peril and deceit. “People take politics in a bad context, but it’s not always bad,” says AndrŽ Spatz, CIO of Unicef. “It’s part of the process of making and influencing decisions.”

Political skills such as identifying stakeholders, managing relationships and communicating well are critical for IT leaders. Yet they’re hardly unique to the CIO role. “The higher up you report in your organization, the more important it is to be sensitive and savvy to the dynamics of your organization,” says Judi Zito, CIO of Miami-Dade County in Florida.

Whatever your reaction to thinking of yourself as a politician, it’s just business as usual in most cases, says Bill Hagerup, a senior consultant with Ouellette & Associates Consulting. “Like it or not, we are all in conflict for the scarce resources available to the organization,” he says. “Politics is the most common way of resolving organizational conflicts.” In that sense, politics is preferable to raw displays of power?especially if you’re at a power disadvantage.

On the Campaign Trail

So what does it take for a CIO to successfully navigate the political twists and snares that develop in any organization? In the spirit of the current presidential campaigns, we present some tips. While organizational politics isn’t quite as dramatic, CIOs can draw on the strategic and tactical mind-sets of the vote-mongering variety of candidate.

Understand your constituency. Quite simply, know whom you’re dealing with and how they fit into the organization. “You need to develop an understanding of who the key players are and thoughtfully consider their motives, goals, perspectives, relationships with one another and their relationships with IT,” says Barker. “Once you’ve done that, you’re in a position to more successfully wade through politically charged situations.”

Taking into account the needs and desires of your constituency is as important for a CIO seeking approval for a project or budget as it is for a presidential candidate seeking reelection. “It is part of the fabric of how to deal with executive management,” says Unicef’s Spatz. “You find your supporters, see who is the real decision-maker, who is an influential supporter and who is an influential opponent.” Those techniques are essential elements of a CIO’s survival kit, he says.

Press the flesh. Good communication is another critical factor. “I don’t call it politics. I call it engagement or communicating,” says Bob Weir, vice president of IS of Northeastern University. Weir engages his senior customers continually, which in his case means department heads and the university president. He draws these key players into the IT governance process by asking each to select, from a long list of IT projects, the most important initiatives for the coming year. “We have a process by which we ask everybody what we should do, then we engage them in deciding what to do,” Weir says.

He also practices that wide-open communication policy with the university’s user community?the students. For example, as more than 23,000 students settled in at the university’s Boston campus in fall 2003, Northeastern servers were hit with viruses (as was corporate America). When installing a particularly aggressive spam and virus filter, the IT department accidentally lost 3,500 e-mail messages bound for students. Once service was fully restored and the affected students notified individually, Weir sent a mass e-mail to the entire university community, telling them what happened and what he was doing about it, and when they would hear from him next.

“Whether it’s communication about a problem or prioritization of projects, we go overboard,” he says. Weir goes so far as to answer every single e-mail personally. No candidate ever worked a room more thoroughly.

Secure endorsements. Building and maintaining relationships throughout the organization, with allies and opponents alike, is undoubtedly the most important political task facing any CIO. “Being a successful political animal…is about being a good facilitator, a good listener and paying attention to what’s spoken and what is not spoken,” says Barker.

Forming alliances means bringing others into the decision-making process, says Miami-Dade’s Zito. “My charge is to operate across all departments, and I need them on board with me,” she says. Zito is currently working with Suzanne Torriente, the assistant county manager who is responsible for public safety agencies such as fire, police, rescue and homeland security, to define responsibilities and recruit a program manager for the county’s IT security and public safety. This person will ultimately report to both Zito and Torriente. “Giving up a certain level of control and authority to share it with somebody else is important, but it’s kind of risky,” says Zito. “If you’re not willing to let go a little bit, though, I’m not sure how much credibility you’ll have.”

When Barker served as the CIO of The Nature Conservancy, he developed a plan to move from localized, divisional IT solutions toward an organizationwide system that necessitated enterprise standards. This shift required the local offices to give up some control of system specifications and standards. Since Barker didn’t have the power to mandate this plan, he instead sought endorsements from early adopters by communicating the benefits of the new system to them and demonstrating its value. “I created champions outside myself,” he says. “They realized this was much better for their part of the organization and in their best interests.”

Relationship-building can pay huge dividends down the road when sensitive situations arise. “It helps defuse sticky political situations if you already have well-established relationships with any or all of the parties and those relationships have been built outside the context of the individual situation,” says Paul Gaffney, former CIO and current executive vice president of supply chain for Staples.

Watch the weathervane. Political savvy means being prepared for change. “The political winds in an organization can shift and always do,” says Barker, “so you need to be actively understanding what are the drivers in the organization, what are the goals of the different players and what are the different relationships.”

At the same time, CIOs should keep their strategy clearly in mind, Spatz says. Otherwise, when political changes occur, “you won’t know how to make compromises that don’t compromise the overall goal,” he says.

Because Unicef operates on a biennial budgeting process, Spatz has to identify technology investments, operating costs and required upgrades up to three years in advance?a process he describes as “science fiction.” Having to plan so far ahead, when discrepancies are a guarantee, requires that he constantly lobby his business-side colleagues so that they continue to understand the need for technology initiatives.

Keep campaigning. As a change agent, the CIO needs to be patient when pressing for his initiatives. “True sustainable change will only come over time,” says Spatz. “You put processes in place, and people will start to change, but it takes time.” He feels that CIOs and their executive colleagues are often impatient. Taking a longer-term view, however, will help keep progress with change initiatives in perspective. “You may lose a few rounds, but you’ll win in the long run,” he says.

Weir confesses that Northeastern’s senior management took a while to get used to his intense style of communication, but his persistence and continued openness have paid off. “Over time, you build that rapport and trust,” he says. Now, if they haven’t heard anything from him, university officials don’t wonder whether anything bad is happening in IT, Weir says.

It’s Critical to Be Political

Ultimately, the skill set of a seasoned politician is not all that different from that of a seasoned senior-level executive. Most executives who have risen to the level of CIO will have mastered at least some political techniques. “If someone has made it to CIO,” Weir says, “then by definition, they’re pretty savvy folk.”

For the politically challenged, these skills can be learned. “There’s no magic in it,” says Spatz. Which is good news for the impolitic?because without political savvy, Barker says, “a CIO is sunk.”