Corporate politics: schmoozing for dollars

Since its launch three years ago, Oxygen Media Inc.'s No. 1 goal has been to build its audience.

Allan Woods
Allan Woods

On teaching technology to get executives' attention: "Think of a way of getting in front of the chairman in a very brief, concise way," because you can leverage that attention in many ways.

Now that the company has 30 million subscribers to its cable TV network, Chief Technology Officer Curtis Brown wants to get a handle on the effectiveness of its online campaigns and the behavior of its Web site users with a set of new Web-tracking tools.

"It's not a big investment," says Brown. "It's about $200,000."

But before he presents it to the company's senior leadership, Brown is preparing himself for the possibility that he may not win. He has already met with several business groups within New York-based Oxygen, and while they recognize the value of the tools, they question their immediate need. In fact, Brown himself is trying to come to grips with whether they're worth pursuing.

"I'm right in the middle of that," he says. "What's so important about the way I'm going about this right now is that it's a dialogue. I'm not just writing this giant presentation and saying, 'Approve.'"

That dialogue, says Brown and other IT leaders, is the formula for success in winning the important battles. Selling projects has always been a delicate balancing act for IT executives. But it's more important than ever for IT leaders to take these turf wars seriously in light of the current state of the economy and the greater scrutiny given to corporate investments and their returns.

IT veterans from all industries have determined their own strategies for winning at the game of corporate politics, but most follow a few simple guidelines for moving their initiatives forward:

  • Get your users on board.
  • Demonstrate the business value and return.
  • Build a personal network among the company leaders.
  • Know when to let go.

"If there's ever a time to pick your proverbial battles," it's now, says Brown, warning that executives who can't prioritize initiatives will run into trouble. He says he ranks the value of his projects and tailors them to the prevailing business climate. Then he shares the results with peers and superiors. "And management responds in kind by saying, 'Curtis doesn't cry wolf,'" seeing him as someone who takes a hard line on costs, Brown says.

IT leaders cite two strategies that can go a long way toward cultivating a favorable political atmosphere for the CIO: building a rapport and teaching technology.

Building a rapport

Building such a rapport among fellow executives has to start long before an IT leader sets his sights on an initiative, says veteran CIO Dick Hudson, now principal of Hudson & Associates, an executive IT consulting firm in Houston. "You do it before. When you go for the final presentation, if you don't have all your ducks in a row, you're going to fail," he says.

The process should begin as soon as an IT executive steps into the job, Hudson says. The executive must build a strong personal and professional relationship with top leaders. Plan one-on-one meetings, stop by their offices to talk and congratulate them on accomplishments, he advises.

Rick Davidson, CIO of The Feld Group, an Irving, Texas-based firm that contracts out CIOs for temporary long-term assignments, suggests that IT executives start even earlier. Ask to meet with the senior leaders during your interview for the position, Davidson says. That way, you walk into the job with their individual stamps of approval.

It's also helpful for IT leaders to solicit feedback on their ideas from other senior executives, says Brown. Ask them if your priorities are straight, he suggests. "Being able to incorporate their needs and their opinions into your plans goes a very long way in building the kind of trust that you need," he says.

But the problem is that many CIOs aren't comfortable with "this kind of social interaction and this kind of political schmoozing," Hudson adds. "And that's why they often last 18 to 24 months."

The problem is often worse for IT leaders than for other executives, because longevity in the CIO's position is relatively brief (about 18 to 24 months in the late '90s, according to J.B. Homer Associates Inc., a New York-based IT executive recruitment firm). But other executives have been there for years and have a long-term rapport with one another.

Another problem is the technical nature of IT, says Hudson. Everybody understands the principles of finance and marketing, for instance, but they may not understand enterprise resource planning.

"What people are ignorant of, they avoid, they're scared of, or they attack," he says. "You're a necessary evil. You're not one of the guys."

Teaching technology

Education is one way to get into that club, says Allan Woods, vice chairman and CIO of Pittsburgh-based Mellon Financial Corp.

A few years ago, Woods was inspired by the old Ameritrade Holding Corp. television commercials, starring a young employee named Stuart who went to great lengths to get executives' attention. Wood says he found about 20 "Stuarts" within Mellon and teamed them up with senior executives for informal tutoring sessions on anything technology-related the executives want to learn.

"Think of a way of getting in front of the chairman in a very brief, concise way," says Woods, because you can leverage that attention in many ways.

It's also critical to establish the right environment -- one that fosters collaboration -- so that when controversial proposals arise, there are ground rules on how to settle them, says Woods.

He suggests that technology leaders ask the following three questions to determine if they have the right structure in place to make sound decisions about IT initiatives:

Do you have the right forums to hold frank discussions about technology issues? Mellon, for instance, has an executive technology council, as well as a technology committee on the board of directors, both of which regularly tackle tough issues.

What's your model for evaluating technology spending? At Mellon, business unit leaders have the flexibility to spend as much as they want on application development, as long as they meet their overall financial targets, says Woods.

"That takes a lot of the edge off the process" of deciding what gets funded, he adds. "It's kind of a self-purging mechanism."

What are the methods used to look at technology? The underlying theme needs to be that technology investments must help enable a line-of-business strategy. When it's clearly linked to a business objective, the answer is obvious, says Woods, but other times, it's more vague. That's when it's wise to focus on the risks, he says. For instance, disaster recovery isn't a line-of-business issue, but if it's not addressed, it could affect line-of-business strategy. That's what senior leaders need to understand, says Woods.

That can be especially tough for IT projects that don't directly affect business users, such as upgrading a piece of software that's about to be discontinued by a vendor, agrees Hudson. That's when you need to get the senior team in a room and explain that the vendor doesn't care that your company is worth $50 billion; it simply won't support the system anymore and this is what could happen as a result, he says.

"I've done that, and I've had executives grumble and mumble under their breath," says Hudson. "But they quiet down because their own top people say, 'We can handle this.'"

Doing Your Homework

Executives at Mellon Financial would be hard-pressed to imagine a world without a centralized e-commerce infrastructure, says CIO Allan Woods. But it's been a long road to get there, with lots of bumps along the way, he recalls.

Two years ago, when Woods first pitched the idea, he faced a lot of resistance. It was a costly, technical project, and it meant that business units across the company would have to hold off on their own Internet projects, says Woods.

"We had a lot of one-on-one meetings," he recalls. Rather than explain why they needed it so much, Woods and his team explained to executives "what the world would be like" if they continued the way they were going. It was like the ghost of Christmas Future, he says. They needed help seeing ahead. And once they did, they were on board.

Even the most trusted executives run into hard sells now and then. But, say IT leaders, resistance can often be overcome if the project's champion is willing to put some muscle behind its proposal.

Rick Davidson, CIO of The Feld Group, says success starts with a firm grasp of the company's business strategies. An IT executive must be able to explain to peers why this project is not just technology for the sake of technology; it must be aligned with the overall business strategy as well.

"CIOs fail, typically, when they try to go out there and second-guess the business executives," Davidson warns. So a good relationship with peers is important early on so that everyone understands the big picture and where IT fits in, he says.

"You need to show how IT helps the sales and marketing team," agrees Curtis Brown, chief technology officer of Oxygen Media. "You have to understand what their problems are."

Davidson also suggests that CIOs take care of all the "basic plumbing" first. Present the overall plans for IT and explain how it ties into the business strategy. It's like laying the pipes and paving the roads before building the houses, he says. Then, once senior leadership has signed off on the general concepts, the CIO doesn't need to present every "Mickey Mouse" request.

For major IT initiatives that must go before senior management, Hudson suggests collaborating with the user community from the start. Together, the IT department and the users should create an impact study that clearly spells out three things: soft and hard costs; soft and hard returns; and the duration of the project in terms of time, cost and manpower. An internal audit at the beginning of a project saves lots of headaches in the end, says Hudson.

Then, with the user community behind him -- or leading the way in some cases -- the CIO should get other vice presidents in line with the idea before going into a formal presentation, he suggests.

Brown stresses the need for a plan to show what the project will bring to the business in the long term, "and really get your spreadsheets out" to show that you've done the work. If you can't show a return within two years, it's probably not worth pursuing, he says.


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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