by Maryfran Johnson

A CIO Survival Guide to Saying No

Nov 25, 20132 mins

One of the toughest leadership challenges for CIOs today is having to refuse business requests for new technology. Here’s how to keep the lines of IT-business communication open while communicating honestly with your fellow executives.

“Having the courage to say no is important. People will wonder who you really are if you’re always saying yes to everything.”

Of all the great advice served up in our cover story about how CIOs must learn the politics of no, that one quote from executive coach Jackie Sloane really crystallized the issue for me.

Developing the art of polite refusal–especially when declining a request from a fellow business executive–is a CIO leadership skill of the highest order. It speaks to your personal reputation for inspiring trust, building relationships and communicating honestly.

“Veteran CIOs find that by using tools such as skillful conversation, deep governance and sense-and-respond intelligence, denial doesn’t have to kill a career,” Kim S. Nash writes. Done wrong, there’s no question that a “no” can sharpen battle lines between IT and business units. It can dilute a CIO’s authority. It can send shadow IT on a rampage of defiant workarounds.

That’s especially perilous for a CIO career path these days, as your role is expanding in so many directions, including into new revenue-generating parts of the business. “When we say no, it can either directly–or in the eyes of business executives–mean we are inhibiting business performance,” says CIO Tom Phillips of Elavon. “It becomes quite an emotive topic.”

Moving past emotion into reasonable, fact-based discussions is the ultimate goal, of course. But it’s so easy to say, so much harder to do. CIOs who succeed must raise both sides of the conversation to new heights of communication and understanding. That’s what CIO Diana McKenzie of Amgen did when she set out to elevate IT’s understanding of business unit operations at this $16.6 billion biotech company.

McKenzie launched a mapping project in which business people showed their IT colleagues exactly how each department operated. Afterward, the technology decision-making process benefited from new levels of IT-business cooperation. And an even bigger sign of success followed: The maps were used in a C-suite workshop to define Amgen’s long-range initiatives.

That’s one of many impressive examples from our story, which collects the best ideas and most salient experiences of current and former CIOs. The unifying thread in all their advice? Upfront, face-to-face communication.

“With some executives I’ve seen, [decisions] are about control and their being right,” says Becky Blalock, former CIO of Southern Co. “Make it so someone’s not losing face when you say no.”