Who’s the boss?

Times are tough for CIOs. Along with dwindling IT budgets, their power and influence is on the wane as well. Having shelled out big bucks on technology just a few years ago–with little evidence of a direct payback–many companies are reeling, and the guys in charge of the technology are the most obvious scapegoats.

Hey, somebody’s gotta take the blame, and it might as well be the IT guy.

CIOs, like the rest of us, are hoping that the economy improves; perhaps then they will regain their former luster. But CIOs shouldn’t wait passively until things start looking up. They can and should hone their abilities to win friends among and influence their executive colleagues. While the economy will eventually get better (it’s gotta, right?), there’s no guarantee that the days when technology sold itself will ever return. As stewards of corporate IT, CIOs have to do a better job selling the merits of the technologies that they believe will benefit their organizations. And like all good salesmen from time immemorial, CIOs need to fit their messages to the audience.

That’s why recent research on executive persuasion conducted by consulting company Miller-Williams sounds intriguing. In a two-and-a-half-year study of nearly 1,700 executives, the company found that more than half of all presentations given to executives had little or no chance of striking a chord because they didn’t match up with an individual executive’s decision-making style. As Miller-Williams sees it, decision-making styles fall into one of five categories: charismatic, thinker, skeptic, follower and controller. The category can tell you what information an executive needs to make a decision and in what order he needs to get it. If your presentation isn’t geared for the executive responsible for approving your project, there’s a good chance your message will fall on deaf ears. For CIOs looking to get budgets and projects approved, sounding the wrong chord has serious implications. “There are probably many great IT projects that should have been approved, but they weren’t, just because of the way CIOs pitched them,” says Gary Williams, president and CEO of Miller-Williams.

Profiles in Personality

Here’s a snapshot of each decision-making style.

Charismatic: These are big-idea kinds of people along the lines of Richard Branson, Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch. One of the ways to recognize that you’re dealing with a charismatic type is that they tend to take control of meetings in search of the big concept. “If you have a presentation with 125 slides or a big report, a charismatic wants all that information condensed into one diagram,” says Williams. Initially, a charismatic says yes a lot, but don’t be fooled; they tend to delegate a lot of the details to others. A charismatic’s initial affirmation often hits roadblocks when it comes to implementation. So be prepared to appease different styles of decision-makers down the road.

Thinker: These folks are very attentive, very process-oriented and want to know lots of step-by-step details. “If they see that slide 101 of your presentation doesn’t jibe with slide 18, they’ll tell you,” says Williams. A talent for mathematics and a relentless focus on the numbers characterize thinkers, who often complement the decision-making style of charismatics. Well-known thinkers include Michael Dell, Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates and the late Katharine Graham. Incidentally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer happens to be a charismatic, which may explain why he and Gates are still working together after all these years.

Skeptic: As the label implies, skeptics question everything, so do your homework and be prepared. Think of Steve Case, Larry Ellison and Tom Siebel. Along with taking everything with a few pounds of salt, skeptics factor in the credibility of the person pitching a proposal. To persuade a skeptic, a good approach is to first identify one of his trusted cohorts, either inside or outside the company, and then recruit said cohort to your side of the argument.

Follower: While many people don’t associate following with leadership, Williams says that in reality about 36 percent of all executives fall into this category, making it the most common of the five decision-making styles. Before they implement any project, followers want ironclad proof that it already has worked somewhere else. Hence, case studies, testimonials and best practices are the best ways to win a follower’s green light. According to Williams, followers can be tricky to identify. Many, such as HP’s Carly Fiorina, appear to be charismatic types, but if you look at how they operate “you’ll see that there’s a fear factor at work,” Williams says. The key to getting buy-in from these folks is assuaging their concerns every step of the way.

Controller: Martha Stewart and Ross Perot are the poster children. Controllers are the toughest breed of decision-makers to deal with, says Williams, because they think they know everything. Williams suggests taking a contrarian approach when working with them. “Don’t try to persuade them. Feed them enough data so that they can persuade themselves,” he says. Often, controllers need an object lesson–an external event, such as a revenue loss–to trigger any decision that requires them to change their way of thinking. One of the best cards to play is bringing up any competitor-related information. “Think of it as giving them permission to change their mind,” he says.

Actions, Not Words

Decision-making styles are behaviour-based, so the key to correctly identifying an executive’s tendency is to pay attention to what she does, not what she says. “Once you’ve identified what decision style an executive has, you can feed them the right data and information in the right order so they can properly evaluate the proposal in the right context,” says Williams. While behaviors can change from one situation to the next, most executives do have a default style that will guide most of their decisions, so that’s the one to pay attention to.

For years, CIOs have been told (by this magazine as well as through many other channels) that they have to improve their communication skills. That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Communicating effectively requires more than just a well-articulated message; it requires a well-articulated message delivered in a manner that resonates with its target audience. It’s time to get with the program. Your future as a strategic executive may depend on it.