First-class coach: Overcoming the frustrations of a CTO

How can I persuade my CEO of the importance of IT?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I've recently been promoted to CTO of the organisation. I was pleased with the career advancement, but I'm not enjoying the role. The new CEO is more concerned as to whether he should have a BlackBerry or an iPhone than whether we should make a big investment in digital outsourcing. How can I make him see the importance of IT and my role?

A: As a rule, the more senior the role in the organisation, the less are specific technical skills the key to success. The qualities that mark out successful leaders include the ability to influence others over whom they have no direct control. However brilliant you are technologically, your knowledge and skills will count for little if you can't communicate the significance of your ideas and strategies to other members of senior management in a persuasive way. This is the true challenge of your new appointment.

The first step is to understand your CEO and the other members of the senior team, their ambitions, their preoccupations and their interests. It seems laughable to you that your new CEO is obsessing about his choice of smartphone, when matters of much greater importance to the function of the department and the success of the organisation are at stake. But put yourself in his shoes: he doesn't know much about IT, finds it scary to have to make decisions with enormous consequences but no guarantee that he's making the right choice. The one bit of technology he's mastered is his mobile phone with e-mails: it's user-friendly and helpful day-to-day.

Besides, he knows that if he makes the wrong choice on this vital bit of kit, he'll personally get it in the neck from his executive team colleagues in a way that he won't if he endorses a recommendation to choose Hyderabad over Bangalore. For the large-scale decisions, he can blame you.

So accept his disproportionate interest in this small matter and help him make the choice that suits him and the organisation, so that he feels kindly disposed towards you. But if you men-tally dismiss him as an idiot, he'll sense it and you'll have an uphill job in persuading him to accept your more heavyweight recommendations.

The next step is to work out how he likes to be communicated with: big picture or lots of detail? In writing or verbally? Supplement your own observations with first-hand accounts from IT people who have worked with him previously. If you have a one-to-one meeting with him, ask him about the experiences he has had with big IT projects in other firms and his thoughts on what went well and what pitfalls he encountered. If you listen to his views, he is more likely to listen to yours, and you'll have gained useful data on the approaches likely to succeed with him.

A client of mine in a similar role to yours gained the support of multiple CEOs in his large multinational for an ambitious IT integration strategy that will significantly affect the way the business operates technology in offices around the world. His starting point was the considerable cost-saving - highly attractive at head-office level - but he realised this would not be enough to convince CEOs in Asia, Europe and the Americas that the upheaval and the centralisation of IT budgets would be worth it.

He visited each one and listened to their views on the present delivery of IT and learned about their areas of dissatisfaction and their concerns about the new system. He devised a powerful presentation setting out his vision and showed the direct benefits to local offices of the proposed system in practical terms.

Well versed in the details of the scheme, he fielded questions from those in his audience who needed detailed data before they felt secure. He won endorsement from this powerful and disparate group by making an effort to understand them as both human beings and business leaders; and he recognised that, though their focus was different from his, they had common pressures and a desire to succeed.

All this may sound like a lot of work, and it certainly was, but it engendered a level of trust, created involvement and buy-in, and made sure this CTO and his team developed the system and process most appropriate for the group.

Long-wave theory has it that, right about now in the 21st century, information technology will truly start to serve mankind, rather than the other way round. Your challenge is to make this promise a reality.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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