The importance of being influential

In the past 10 years, the CIO position has gone through a remarkable transformation, moving from the computer room to the boardroom. While that transition is well under way in most companies, it’s still too early in the process to declare it complete. Many CIOs are still figuring out how their IT departments can best contribute to the business’s goals and how they can best make their voices heard at the top rungs of the corporate ladder.

To help them climb into their new role, today’s CIOs require boardroom skills. The expanding role of information technology as a key business enabler demands that a CIO possess management, communication and sales skills, in addition to technical skills. Today, successful businesses view technology strategically. Where IT was once off in a glass room somewhere — removed from the business — it now has a seat at the leadership table.

In light of the broader strategic role CIOs are playing, I believe three executive skills have become particularly important for CIOs to master: networking, influence and business acumen.

Network for Success

I don’t mean the Ethernet variety, but the old-fashioned practice of being well-connected inside and outside the company. In the bad old days, IT staffers just did things on their own, sometimes telling the other departments, sometimes not. The thinking was that their business counterparts wouldn’t understand what they were doing anyway, so it seemed easier to just do it. But to be effective today, the CIO has to be highly visible and in regular contact with key members of the business, holding discussions about the needs of the enterprise, planning for the future, setting expectations, showing value and demonstrating ROI for existing projects. You can’t be credible if your core constituency–the business leaders that rely on IT–views you as an outsider.

For the CIO, those face-to-face encounters with business leaders create opportunities to position the IT group for a role in determining the company’s strategy. Visibility and ongoing communication are the catalysts for effective networking. The discussion about IT strategy and direction is no longer a monologue but a complex dialogue that can take place only if the CIO is viewed as an authority on and an adviser to the business.

Because of the increasing importance of electronic connections to trading partners, suppliers and customers, the CIO plays an important role in vendor and partner relations. External networking includes being part of sales presentations to key customers and prospects. More and more, there is a technology component to every customer relationship, and large customers seeking to make long-term strategic commitments to your company want to get a clear picture of the people running the IT department. They want to know you.

Your Leadership Toolkit

Many CIOs don’t have a lot of experience guiding a group of people that cannot be compelled to follow — in this case, business leaders. The crafting and articulation of a vision and the process of getting business-unit buy-in into the picture you’re painting requires the ability to influence thinking. Influence comes from some pretty basic activities, including active listening, asking questions, honestly working through difficulties and focusing on the needs of others. In other words, by being a good partner and developing solutions that work for your internal customers, your influence grows. It is a byproduct of a successful and mutually rewarding working relationship.

The IT steering committee — now a staple at many organizations — is a great example of a tool CIOs can use to provide a new level of leadership and influence. Typically, the IT steering committee is designed to give business and IT a forum in which to jointly set IT strategy, goals, budgets and priorities. This careful alignment of IT projects around business goals ensures that the right projects get done for the right reasons — which is especially important in times when the capital investment climate is tight, as it is at most companies.

Your Business Vocabulary

The third executive skill a CIO needs to develop is the financial acumen and perspective that will enable her to fully engage in the business decisions that drive the company’s bottom line. The CIO should never forget that IT earns the right to spend the company’s money by doing the right thing for the business. But the CIO must also be able to make business leaders understand that technology is not a current-period performance enhancement and that there is no such thing as a short implementation cycle.

The CIO should also be at the forefront of demonstrating how investments, new applications and infrastructure can translate into financial benefit to the organization. Business and technology leaders often view IT very differently, with the former seeing only the cost and the latter focusing on the value of IT. Demonstrating value for a particular project is not solely the job of IT, however. Both the CIO and business leaders must be willing to measure and account for the value.

Most businesses have only just begun to scratch the surface of technology’s ability to improve margins and productivity, and extend the customer relationship. As the IT and business processes become more intertwined, companies will continue to look to technology for strategic advantage.

It used to be that the CIO’s career was defined by his technical competence. Today and in the future, a CIO’s role and success are defined by the skills of networking, influence and business acumen, in addition to the traditional accountability for delivering the technology vision and strategy. By diligently tying IT investments to business goals and strategy, CIOs can ensure that their companies understand and appreciate technology as a resource that can be leveraged for competitive advantage. As they succeed in that mission, the role of the CIO will continue to evolve and grow in stature and importance.