6 practices of influential IT leaders

In an era of continual business transformation, influence is a key leadership skill to lean on —one that must be developed and honed for success.

6 habits of influential IT leaders
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CIOs need to sway opinions and build consensus if they want to get work done, whether it’s for a tactical technology implementation or a multimillion-dollar transformational project.

In fact, CIOs list influence as one of the most important leadership skills needed to succeed, now and more so in the future, according to Deloitte’s 2018 Global CIO Survey, as 48 percent of 1,437 CIOs identified influencing others as among the top five must-have leadership skills over the next three years.

The ability to influence is not something that comes naturally to most, however, according to CIOs, management consultants and leadership experts. Instead, they say it’s something that’s developed and practiced.

“It’s something that leaders spend time cultivating, just like they learn how to make presentations or build out a network. I’ve seen leading CIOs make it a priority,” says Ron Lefferts, managing director and global leader of the technology consulting practice at management consulting company Protiviti.

CIOs need to sway opinions and build consensus if they want to get work done, whether it’s for a tactical technology implementation or a multimillion-dollar transformational project.

In fact, CIOs list influence as one of the most important leadership skills needed to succeed, now and more so in the future, according to Deloitte’s 2018 Global CIO Survey, as 48 percent of 1,437 CIOs identified influencing others as among the top five must-have leadership skills over the next three years.

The ability to influence is not something that comes naturally to most, however, according to CIOs, management consultants and leadership experts. Instead, they say it’s something that’s developed and practiced.

“It’s something that leaders spend time cultivating, just like they learn how to make presentations or build out a network. I’ve seen leading CIOs make it a priority,” says Ron Lefferts, managing director and global leader of the technology consulting practice at management consulting company Protiviti.

Experts say there’s no single trait or tactic that an IT leader can develop or deploy to influence others. They also note that individuals looking to become influential leaders need to find what strategies work best for them given their unique personalities and positions.

Still, they point to a range of approaches that IT leaders have employed to influence others. Here’s a look at six practices of influential CIOs.

They position themselves for each unique audience

Claus T. Jensen, CTO of health insurance company Aetna, says he starts working a room before he even enters it, learning in advance who will be present at each meeting he’s scheduled to attend. Then he tailors how he’ll present himself to the setting, varying his approaches to ensure he’ll connect with the people around him.

“You have to absolutely understand the room. You have to understand the agenda and be clear about what you think your role is in that meeting,” he says.

He says he prepares based on what he learns.

“You have to paint the right picture of yourself. That sounds really simple but a lot of people have a hard time with that,” Jensen says. “You have to choose what to say and when to talk, because saying whatever is on your mind isn’t always smart. You could paint a [false] picture of yourself.”

Take introductions, for example. He says if he introduces himself as simply the CTO of Aetna, his audience knows only his title. On the other hand, he paints a much different picture of himself if he says he’s the CTO of Aetna and it’s his mission to turn vision into action.

Jensen says he coaches others to do the same, noting that people decide in mere seconds whether they’ll listen to someone and their ideas.

“What you chose to add to the title tells people who you think you are, and if you do it well and you back it up with actions, you can be [an influencer],” he says.

They demonstrate how their ideas have value to others

Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, draws on an acronym more commonly used in sales than in IT: WIIFM, short for, What’s in it for me? Roberts says it’s a good question for executives to keep in mind if they’re looking to influence others.

“If you’re trying to sell an idea, negotiate a good outcome, provide a moment of truth in the business, you need to understand the WIIFM,” Roberts says. “All that means is, go sit on the other side of the table and understand what it’s like there. Because if you get what’s important to your business partner, the world gets a lot clear and you’re now able to influence and be a leader.”

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Jensen agrees, saying he works to demonstrate how a particular idea, project or proposal will bring value to others. He points to a past idea — a high-priced technology project that was meant to help colleagues with the challenging task of collecting demographic information — as case in point. He says he influenced others by finding ways to show its value: Whenever colleagues complained about a challenge collecting information, he would share how this project could help them in that task.

“You need to remind people every time a problem happens that, ‘This is how we can change it,’” he says. “You shop it around and make sure they understand the value proposition.”

They tell stories to articulate their ideas

CIOs must be able to articulate a vision and explain how technology fits into the organization’s tactical and strategic goals. But management consultants and experienced IT leaders say influential executives know how to explain their vision, the technology and IT projects in ways that are engaging and enlightening and that speak to the audience they’re trying to win over.

“You’ve got to influence people who don’t typically know or care about technology,” says Eric Kierstead, CIO of Material Handling Systems.

To get their attention and sway their opinions, Kierstead says he draws on the power of storytelling, walking his audience through narrative presentations. “Weave a story that everyone can understand; draw a picture that will really land with your audience,” he says.

Kierstead points to a presentation he made as the CIO at his former employer, a parcel delivery company that had only average online customer capabilities for tracking and tracing parcels. Kierstead wanted to convince his executive peers to invest in the creation of industry-leading functions that would let customers view key delivery metrics such as on-time delivery rates in dashboards. He framed the pitch as a story about competition, saying that having these tools for customers would help the company leapfrog over its rivals. He talked about the project as an offensive and defensive play.

He says that tactic helped him win their support and secure funding for the project, which he classified as a huge win for the company.

They win over their toughest customers first

Brian Dickson, vice president of information management at retail developer WS Development, has successfully used this strategy throughout his career. He points to one instance, about a decade ago, when he and his IT team decided to implement a document management system — a project that would require business teams to help organize the data that the system would use to sort and index documents.

Dickson decided to work first with a service department manager who was typically skeptical about the value of most proposals. Dickson, who had deliberately cultivated a good rapport with this manager over the years by focusing on delivering superior IT service, ran the pilot program for the new system with this skeptic to demonstrate how the project would help the manager’s own team.

The strategy paid off: Dickson succeeded in getting this skeptic’s support. Dickson then used that endorsement to gain others’ enthusiasm for the project. “I knew if I got his buy-in it would help me get buy-in from the other division heads,” he adds.

They put the organization first

CIOs have been getting the message that they need business acumen to succeed today, and that they must know how to develop technology-enabled strategies that can help the business grow.

But management and leadership experts say influential CIOs don’t just show that they understand the business; they demonstrate that they have organizational success as their very top priority.

Avram Kornberg, founder of Stratecution Consulting, recalls working as a CIO at a firm that needed to beef up its cybersecurity investments. But the firm also had pressing needs related to its core products that likewise needed funding. Kornberg says he brought the cybersecurity proposals to the attention of the firm’s leadership team, but he acknowledged that his proposals could take a backseat to the product-related investments.

“That helped me build credibility because it showed I understood the priorities of the company,” he says.

As a result, Kornberg says his colleagues trusted that he was looking out for the best interests of the organization and trusted that when he did put forth new ideas or spending that those, too, were priority items that would benefit the whole firm.

“No one ever said no to me about an investment I requested from that point on, and this was in an organization that was definitely challenged for capital. They understood that I wouldn’t ask for it if I didn’t think it was important,” he says.

They’re informed, but open-minded

Influential individuals, particularly when they hold top technology positions, are constantly learning, Lefferts says.

“They have a lot of conversations both within and outside the organization to make sure they’re current on issues — particularly issues in their industry or in technology. They’re bringing in external parties such as consultants and they’re looking outside their industries to make sure they have different perspectives,” he says.

Yet the most influential CIOs know not to use their knowledge and insight as billy clubs, management experts say.

“Technologists tend to be misled by the idea that the smartest person wins,” Kornberg says.

Instead, Kornberg and other leadership experts say that influential CIOs work on building consensus around ideas by leveraging the good rapport they’ve built with colleagues and their IT teams along with using strong communication and negotiation skills. They also keep an open mind, drawing on other perspectives to craft the right solution to whatever problem they’re trying to solve.

Gary VonderHaar, executive vice president of operations and technology for processing at Mastercard, says he comes to discussions “with an informed opinion and then I try to get to an answer together. You have to come with the ability to negotiate and prioritize and work through a process to get to the right answer. It’s not coming in with the best answer first.”

He says he knows who on his team has the knowledge and needed skills and then draws them into discussions so they can add insights that help drive the organization toward that best answer.

He adds: “As an influential leader you have to know who knows their stuff, and then build a high-performing team and bring the right diversity together.”

This story, "6 practices of influential IT leaders" was originally published by CIO.