A Masters in Collaboration

Big universities are like holding companies: We have several different businesses (in our case, colleges and administrative departments) which provide their own services and products under a single brand. Obviously there are redundancies and inefficiencies in this environment, which conflicts with my job as Purdue’s CIO to reduce resource duplication and provide centralized services where it makes sense.

But even as CIO I have very limited control – half of Purdue’s 1000 IT staff are located in the schools and administrative departments and I have little management authority in those areas. For example, if I decline a purchase request at the University, our colleges and departments can spend their own budgets and have their own IT staff make the purchase. So my primary management option is to move forward through collaboration and influence.

The raw ingredients of influence are straightforward: the story, the logical argument and the supporting evidence for it. You mix those ingredients in proportions that seem right for the decision-makers you are targeting. But it’s the approach that you choose to follow that can make or break your success.


First let’s acknowledge that there are very few people in any context with the reputation or personal magnetism to make things happen purely through their own influence. The way folks like me get things done is to get others to help us accomplish our objectives. To do this, I first concentrate my efforts on a small number of opinion makers and work them hard. I’ll target people who aren’t necessarily the ones in charge, but are close to the top and important because they help form others’ opinions.

Being able to identify those opinion leaders is surely the secret sauce of influence. At Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, where I was assistant dean before taking the university CIO job earlier this year, I knew who those individuals were and knew them well. And I knew the people who thought they were important opinion leaders but really weren’t. Now at the university level, there are a lot of people new to me who I don’t know. I’m trying to discern who the “players” are. Being sophisticated professionals, even if they are not relevant opinion leaders, they certainly know how to create the impression that they are. How can you see past that?

I use a trusted consul or ambassador in the area who can advise me. This ambassador will likely not be one of those 500 embedded IT people. IT folks tend to have a fairly near-sighted horizon for who or what is important. It’s better to have someone on the business side who is sympathetic to my interests, who will mark my card and will advise me on who the players are.

Then it’s up to me to verify that these are the right people to influence. To do this, I arrange to be in a collaborative situation with them – such as a project or committee – and start to build a relationship. I’ll observe whether the person follows up, keeps their word and has a good sense of the pulse of their group. I’ll usually try something small early on; never go to someone for the first time with a big issue that you’ve got to win. Start with something where it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose and see how that plays out.

For example, I might suggest to a college faculty hiring officer or an administrative department hiring officer that we could get IT people involved in the interview processes. The hiring officer may say that’s a great idea, and make that happen, or else tell you there’s no way they want their incoming people to meet your people. Or again, they might be initially supportive of the idea but then somehow it never quite works out. In any event you’ll discover whether this person is someone you can work with, someone willing to make commitments, and someone who follows up on their commitments. All good information for determining a reliable collaborator.


Another approach – my general strategy, in fact – is to sound out my idea first with people who advise the person I’m trying to influence. I find out who the decision-makers talk to when making decisions. That’s difficult with one or two of my colleagues because they don’t talk to anyone; I just have to go pitch to them But most people, when you pitch them something pretty big, will have a couple of people they talk to about it. So my first pitch is to those “sounding board” people. I don’t ask them to bring my idea up with the decision-maker themselves; I say “What do you think so and so would think about an idea like this.” I’ll listen to how they poke at it, and from those conversations I’ll determine whether I’m good to go. Or I might glean that I need to tweak this, or not be as strong on that. Or just maybe I’ll think, “Crikey, this is dead on arrival; I’m not even going to present it.”

If I’m really jammed, I use my silver bullet approach. I’ll say to the decision-makers, “I’ve got to make this happen; it’s really important to the University and so it’s important to me. This is a big one, and I won’t be back next week with another request.” I will already have sounded out the people around them, and if necessary applied pressure from underneath and sometimes from above them. I want them to interpret that as “I’m going to do everything in my power to make this happen, so don’t be surprised if you get a call from your boss on this.”

I may use this approach once a year, if that often. That’s not the tool you want to pull out every time you need to influence someone because you use up a lot of credibility with that all-or-nothing approach.

Through all of this, I keep in the forefront of my mind that collaboration is a two-way street. People want to influence us, and we have to let ourselves be open to that. That can be emotionally wearing. When we’re tired our attitude can be “To heck with it, what we’ve got is good enough.” But we’ve got to maintain a high energy level and enthusiasm because we’re in a service provision business – people don’t knock on our door and say “I just wanted to let you know that you guys are doing a great job.” They are silent until something goes wrong, and then they’re on our doorstep to tell us we’re screwing up.


There are opportunities for collaboration even when they think we’ve made a mistake.

An example: The college of engineering is putting up a major new building. Our university process for installing wireless services is to wait until the building is finished before we design and implement the system. There are some reasonable engineering reasons for doing it that way, but it’s also because most of our wireless installation experience comes from retrofitting existing buildings.

The dean of engineering called me up to tell me this wasn’t satisfactory to her. After all, we are about to take occupancy of a nearly finished engineering building, and there’s no wireless there. To her, this looked like we had dropped the ball.

I consulted with my technical people about the constraints involved, and then went to the University Architect’s office, which is managing the building construction. We concluded that it’s better to tweak the wireless installation after it’s installed than to not start it until the building is finished. The architect and I went back to the dean with an accelerated schedule for the installation of the wireless network plus a plan to completely revise the way we do wireless in all new university construction.

The dean is a lot less unhappy: she’s got a plan to accelerate the installation, and she rightly feels her influence has materially improved our institutional processes. By being responsive and taking her complaints seriously, the next time I may need something, I may have traction there. Additionally, the University Architect and I now have a new and successfully initiated relationship.

Competency in collaboration and influence is not something you can switch on. You have to follow some basic rules, such as always being honest, and work hard to avoid being defensive. You can study your fellow executives to pick up their techniques. But mostly you’ve got to get in there and practice to find your own style. It’s like negotiation; you’ll win some, you’ll lose some. But by becoming an expert in strategic collaboration, your business will be better off for your efforts. 076995

Gerry McCartney is Vice President of IT and CIO of Purdue University and a member of the CIO Executive Council.

More from Gerry McCartney

See Gerry McCartney discuss the leadership competency of market knowledge and the future of the CIO role in the CIO Executive Council Outlook video series.

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