The art of maintaining business buy-in

IT leaders must consistently demonstrate value and hone C-Suite relationships to maintain buy-in for key initiatives — an increasingly difficult challenge in an era when speed trumps all.

boardroom meeting

For years, CIOs and their teams toiled through multiyear, multiphase initiatives, from implementing new ERP systems to overhauling data centers. Beyond the obvious technology burden, IT leaders faced another daunting challenge: maintaining buy-in from their C-suite and business-unit partners.

Now, speed is becoming the most valuable currency for IT organizations (and for businesses), and CIOs have hustled to realign their organizations to rapidly deliver new capabilities.

Still, many CIOs must balance the traditional ways with the new, the long-term with the quick wins. No, we’re not talking about “bimodal” IT— instead, it’s a test of IT leaders’ ability to build and maintain key relationships and to demonstrate value on multiple levels.

Getting buy-in for big initiatives is only the first step. “Keeping it sold,” as former Raytheon CIO Rebecca Rhoads explained it to Dan Roberts and me in our book Confessions of a Successful CIO (Wiley, 2014), is an equally important — and formidable — task for CIOs.

“You’ve got to be as passionate about whatever that value proposition is in year six as you were in year one,” Rhoads told us. “Not everyone has heard it a million times — you have. That was an ‘a-ha’ for us: how important it was to keep it sold, especially during the tough times.”

At the time, Rhoads (who is now President of Global Business Services at Raytheon) was leading a complete transformation at the $23.2 aerospace and defense company, which included modernizing and consolidating existing and acquired businesses onto a common platform. The program would take several years and, in many ways, would hinge on Rhoads’ ability to nurture the buy-in she received from the get-go.

Like many successful IT leaders, Rhoads had developed strong relationships with her C-suite colleagues — most notably with then-CEO William H. Swanson, with whom Rhoads had worked closely when he was a divisional leader and she his CIO. Those relationships — as well as her constant communication across both the company and her organization — helped strengthen and prolong the strategy for transforming the company. 

“You need to have a team that shares your vision. But then the team has to make your vision theirs,” Rhoads said. “And when they make your vision their vision, now you’re off and running."

“If that’s not happening,” she added, “then the change isn’t happening.” 

Demonstrating value

It’s no surprise that issues like aligning IT with business and innovation were two of the top three IT management concerns expressed by respondents to the 2017 Society for Information Management (SIM) Annual IT Trends Study. But other key concerns trailing close behind were boosting agility and flexibility in both IT and business, as well as speed to market.

During his 12 years as CIO of Union Pacific, Lynden Tennison has seen these trends accelerate. 

In addition to a number of new, agile-focused initiatives, Tennison’s organization is also busy rebuilding the $19.9 billion railroad company’s core transportation-management system. The multiyear program, called “NetControl,” was projected to cost about $200 million.

Tennison and his C-suite colleagues agreed that the new system needed to be built over the existing platform, which had been built decades before on millions of lines of assembler code, to prevent any disruption in operations. But the new system would be rolled out in discrete deliverables.

tennison lynden dsc0148 5x7 Union Pacific

Lynden Tennison, CIO of Union Pacific

“If all you’re doing are big-bang rollouts, that seems like a good way of dying,” said Lynden Tennison, CIO of Union Pacific. “You’ve got to give incremental value along the way. And it needs to refresh along the way.”

It was a big bet, Tennison said, and the buy-in he got from his executive peers would require significant care and feeding along the way.

Tennison already had a considerable amount of credibility in the C-suite, due to his organization’s track record of building innovative solutions for the company (several of which have been commercialized and sold to competitors), as well as his past success in partnering with operations, building a strong bench and demonstrating value through key improvement metrics.

But he knew that the long effort would constantly test that credibility.

To preserve the enthusiasm for NetControl, Tennison set up a structured cadence of meetings and updates with various stakeholders, including the CEO and his fellow functional executives. They would often hear the latest on the project in weekly senior-staff and operating committee meetings, monthly operations/technology team meetings, and various one-on-ones with fellow C-suite leaders.

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