Power versus influence: Understanding the difference between the two turned out to be a critical lesson for me as a CIO

I came to be a CIO through a circuitous route.  I started, many decades ago, in IT and worked my way up through the ranks.  After a number of years at the director level I made a shift to consulting.

Although I was ultimately successful, I struggled in the first few years.  As someone who had hired and worked with consultants, I guess I was lucky enough to have hired some wonderful practitioners over the years.  As I soon found out, a great consultant makes what they do look easy.  In actual practice, it’s much tougher than it looks.

I had come up through the ranks in IT and, at least in those days, had (or thought I had) a significant amount of power associated with my position, at least within the IT group.  Many IT organizations were pretty much command and control organizations:  I took orders from the CIO and gave them to my staff.  I’d like to think that I was open to suggestions, but at the end of the day, we made decisions.

Over the years I was on the receiving end of some decisions that were painful.   We all worked too many hours.  Sometimes it was because of production problems.  There was simply no option because we had to make it work.   Sometimes it was decisions that were wrong – often deadlines were far too optimistic.  We would complain and make our case about the unreasonableness.  We might pride ourselves on “speaking truth to power” but in the end, we worked like mad to make these deadlines, reasonable or not.  You did it – or you did something else.

When I became a consultant, my world shifted.  Suddenly, I had no power.  I couldn’t order anyone to do anything – reasonable or not.  I was floundering.

Fortunately, a friend and mentor came to my rescue.  She gave me a book called “Power and Influence” and insisted I read it.   A light went on.  If I had no power as a consultant, I had to master influence.  It made an immediate difference in my work and saved my stumbling consulting career.

Later there was another career shift and I was a CIO, and found that I used my consulting skills perhaps even more than my technical skills.   That makes sense for a number of reasons.

While I won’t dismiss the importance of technical and subject matter skills, I believe the studies of the area of influence and how it works made the largest contribution to my consulting career.   Consulting is the ability to engage others to recognize and solve difficult or wicked problems – purely on the basis of influence.

Consulting is about engagement not persuasion.  When I became a CIO, after another career shift, I found that once again, I used my consulting skills perhaps even more than my technical skills.   That makes sense for a number of reasons.

We aren’t selling anything.  To solve today’s problems, getting buy-in is not enough.  You have to have real and lasting commitment and maintain that over a protracted period of time and through real difficulties.  Engagement is the only solution.

Getting, and maybe more importantly, sustaining that engagement requires mastering a wide range of tools, acquiring a set of key skills and the understanding and application number of different knowledge areas and disciplines.  It’s a daunting task, but it’s worth it.  Once you get used to “working without a net” as I love to call it,  there’s nothing more rewarding than watching a group of people achieve something they didn’t think possible.  Despite what you see on TV or watch from some who are regarded as gurus – the best consultants are those who don’t need to stand in the spotlight.  Those of us who have cleaned up the messes of the guru or star know that consulting is the epitome of Harry Truman’s famous dictum, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

First, over the years the world has caught up.  We are no longer in the “command and control” world where I learned about management.  As Peter Drucker famously said, “the best and the brightest are volunteers.”    Today, we don’t only deal with conscripts or foot soldiers, we also deal with knowledge workers.  Our best and brightest want and even demand a lot more autonomy than ever before.  Our challenge is a tremendous one.  How do we maintain standards and disciplines essential for us while acceding to this need for autonomy?

I still keep up technically – I have an insatiable curiosity and I got into IT because I’m a closet geek.  That’s not going to change.  I pride myself in having technical skills. Yet to be real about it, I know that there are a number of areas where most of my staff is simply head and shoulders above me in their understanding of technical issues.  That’s a good thing.  As I read recently, “if you are always the brightest guy in the room, you are in the wrong room.”  Whether it was ego or not, in my days in IT management I couldn’t have accepted that.  As a consultant it was a necessity.   Even if you are an expert you work with others who are also at the top of their technical specialty.   In a multi-disciplinary team you get used to working with a group of people whose skills are far above your own in specific areas.  As a CIO today, it’s essential.

Third, and perhaps most important, as a consultant, I learned a valuable lesson:  Few if any of these wicked problems can be solved within a single aspect of an organization.  Real problems have their causes and effects in different areas and the most tenacious of all have a multitude of issues across a wide swath of the organization.   Likewise, great opportunities require the support of a wide range of people across the organization at all levels.  Those who can forge and maintain these alliances will find that their organizations reap the benefits.

It’s on this last point where the role of the CIO is crucial.  We’ve all read about the move of spending power to the business areas, recently in particular the chief marketing officer.   The best CIO’s don’t treat this as an issue.  The best realize that this is an opportunity to win funding for important areas.  They take the Harry Truman approach and offer their help in making great things happen.   I believe that the best CIO’s find that this approach helps them reach the holy grail of CIOs – to be part of the strategic leadership of their company.   It may seem counter-intuitive but in the long run, modern corporate management in the best firms is moving or has moved away from heroes and zeroes and into real teams and true collaboration.  Or as one client said, in what I thought was the greatest compliment of my consulting career, “I don’t know what you do, but I do know that when you are on the team, things get done and good things happen.”

In the end, for CIO or consultant – success is the same.   We need to enable, engage and facilitate groups to solve the wicked problems or exploit transformational opportunities.  That’s where the game is played today – and winning that game takes a great team, and the skills of a consultant.

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