INTERVIEW: From CIO to salesman

14 Dec 2010

Colm Murphy, of Dynamic Leadership Development, talks about why a CIO’s role must be about selling the value of IT to senior management.

What trends are you seeing about how the role of CIO and IT manager is changing?

IT managers and CIOs are under extreme pressure in big companies. There’s the threat of outsourcing in there and a fundamental shift is happening for them, putting them under pressure to justify their existence. At the moment I’m seeing more and more, not just IT managers but other support-service functions, where they have to do a lot more justifying and be a lot more political about showing the value of what they do. A trend like outsourcing moves IT management away from a technical role to being account managers or relationship managers. IT managers almost become a buffer between the business and the outsourcer.

That’s a pretty significant change for someone who’s been steeped in the technical side of IT. How does someone go about changing their role to suit?

It can be difficult. More senior IT people have learned those skills over time. At a junior level it’s a struggle to realise the job has changed. It’s the same struggle as going from an individual role to being a manager. It’s important to be aware that the game has changed, and that as the saying goes, what got you here won’t get you there.

You need to be aware of where your strengths are and where your strengths aren’t. People who are bunkered lose personal motivation and can’t get business buy-in.

What can IT people do to start reaching out to the business?

Any role change needs support. Look for mentors in the organisation, maybe outside IT. IT is one of a number of support functions. Tap into people who have made the switch and changed their skill sets.

There’s often been a disconnect between IT and business. How can IT better understand what the organisation wants?

That breaks down into three areas: relevance, support and visibility.

Relevance is about selling the benefits, not the characteristics. For an IT manager or CIO, you have to sell the benefits and you have to understand enough about what the business wants is important for seeing what the benefits are. Characteristics don’t have meaning outside of IT.

As for support, you need to leverage people around the boss. If you’re going in to pitch an idea and no one else in the room has heard the idea already, you’re gone. If I was CIO, I might want to share ideas with the finance guy or the marketing person. That way you have three or four people in the room already behind you, and you also get a reality check on your presentation. The idea that your own brilliance is going to shine through is flawed.

Thirdly, there’s visibility. Spend more time meeting with people outside your department. To IT people, that sounds like politics, but there’s a perception gap; IT people have been hiding themselves in the shade. Unfortunately, you do need to get out there and make people aware of what you’re doing.

Isn’t it true that IT tends to attract a certain type of personality – one that’s maybe a little introverted and probably uncomfortable with the idea of selling themselves and their accomplishments?

I would challenge their perception of what selling is. We need to stop thinking of a salesman as the smarmy guy in the trench coat. There’s a middle ground. People have to be aware that they’re going to have a bigger impact by connecting with others. And, with technology, you can connect without having to be an extrovert. There are blogs and chatrooms, or business social networking sites like LinkedIn.

My advice is to take it slowly. The classic change model is contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Don’t think of it as those weight loss programmes where you have to lose four stone in three weeks; it’s small steps. Just go for a coffee with one of your peers and leave the laptop behind. Don’t go after the managing director on your first step, talk to your peers first. For someone in the CIO’s position, maybe it’s about setting a target of talking to the CEO in three months’ time.

And in the meantime … ?

There are influencing structures in any organisation. If the top person isn’t gettable, there are probably people close to them who are. It’s hard to make two or three jumps in one go, but you can slowly get there.

The top salespeople are all about relationships. The CIO needs to become a version of a salesperson. Bear in mind, IT is competing against the possibility of being outsourced, and against other departments for where the budgets go.

The top leaders in any function in the business are letting go of the technical and are becoming relationship builders. There’s a need to move away from a stuffy room to working the network within the organisation.

What would you say to help IT overcome the idea that they won’t get a fair hearing from the business?

With any change, there’s going to be fear, and it’s natural for people to think ‘nobody wants to listen to me’. But what is the point in working on something innovative if nobody knows about it? If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll only get the same results. I’ve worked with a lot of people who bring innovation in IT but someone else who’s a bit more visible takes the credit.

IT has no God-given right to be protected from what’s going on out there. It needs to understand the business and to build relationships. It’s competing with outsourcing and budget reductions. The quality of work is never enough by itself. Marketing or selling of IT doesn’t have to be shameless, it’s simply about building networks.

Colm Murphy is an executive coach for leaders and teams with Dynamic Leadership Development. He was talking to Gordon Smith.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic