Big universities are like holding companies, they have several different businesses – in our case, colleges and administrative departments – that provide their own services and products under a single brand. Obviously there are redundancies and inefficiencies in this environment that conflict with the job.

As Purdue’s CIO I look to reduce resource duplication and provide centralised services where it makes sense. But even as CIO I have very limited control – half of Purdue’s 1,000 IT staff are located in the schools and administrative departments and I have little management authority in those areas. For example, if I decline a purchase request at the University, our colleges and departments can spend their own budgets and their IT staff can make the purchase. So my primary management option is to move forward through collaboration and influence.

The raw ingredients of influence are straightforward – the story, the logical argument and the supporting evidence for it. You mix those ingredients in proportions that seem right for the decision makers you are targeting. But it’s the approach you choose that can make or break your success.

First let’s acknowledge that there are very few people in any context with the reputation or personal magnetism to make things happen purely through their own influence. The way folks like me get things done is to get others to help us accomplish our objectives. To do this, I first concentrate my efforts on a small number of opinion makers and work them hard. I’ll target people who aren’t necessarily the ones in charge, but are close to the top and important because they help form others’ opinions. <

Being able to identify those opinion leaders is surely the secret sauce of influence. At Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, where I was assistant dean before taking the university CIO job earlier this year, I knew well who those individuals were and I knew the people who thought they were important opinion leaders but weren’t.

Are you ready for collaboration and influence?

CIOs wishing to improve their performance in this critically important competency first need to examine organisational readiness for the CIO to play an expanded role using collaboration and influence, and then assess their personal readiness. Some questions to ask include:

■ Does the organisation value or prefer a siloed structure? Can you cross organisational boundaries, for example between functions, geographies, or divisions?
■ How easy is it to influence the organisation? How complex or diverse is it?
■ Do you know who the players are that enable work to get done?

■ Do you understand the principles of effective influence and group alignment?
■ Do you see your role as actively bringing people together, or following the way things are done and executing on plans?
■ How strong is your ability to perceive the feelings, beliefs and preferences of others? Can you see a situation from their perspective rather than just your own, no matter how much you may disagree with it?
■ Do you enjoy or get energised by seeing a group work together, or managing to bring people together across boundaries or old habits?

Based on the answers to these questions, you can then decide how to implement collaborative and influencing behaviours. Like all habits, first you need to identify the problem, then model the changed behaviour – leaving yourself some room to make mistakes – and then persevere

Now at the university level, there are a lot of people new to me who I don’t know. I’m trying to discern who the ‘players’ are. Being sophisticated professionals, even if they are not relevant opinion leaders, they certainly know how to create the impression that they are. How can you see past that? I use a trusted consul in the area to advise me.
This consul will not usually be one of those 500 embedded IT people. IT folks tend to have a fairly near-sighted horizon for who or what is important. It’s better to have someone on the business side who is sympathetic to my interests and will advise me on who the players are.<

Then it’s up to me to verify that these are the right people to influence. To do this, I arrange to be in a collaborative situation with them – such as a project or committee – and start to build a relationship. I’ll observe whether the person follows up, keeps their word and has a good sense of the pulse of their group. I’ll usually try something small early on – never go to someone for the first time with a big issue that you’ve got to win. Start with something where it doesn’t really matter and see how that plays out.

For example, I might suggest to a college faculty hiring officer or an administrative department hiring officer that we could get IT people involved in the interview processes. The hiring officer may say that’s a great idea or else say there’s no way they want their incoming people to meet your people.

Or again, they might be initially supportive of the idea but then somehow it never quite works out. In any event you’ll discover whether this person is someone you can work with, if they are willing to make commitments and follow up on them. All good information for determining a reliable collaborator.

Collaboration and Influence

CIO LESSON: This competency is about working with peers, partners and others who are not in your line of command, to positively affect business performance. It is working indirectly, through persuasion and influence, rather than by formal authority.

■ At basic levels of performance there is a willingness to participate in a reactive manner – executives have to be asked to collaborate.
■ In the medium levels of performance, one actively participates in teamwork and influence as a good team member.
■ At high levels, one not only is a good team player, but also enables others to be good team players, facilitating partnerships across organisations and geographies. High performers seek input and compromise when necessary to contribute to the team. Top performers genuinely look for and make joint decisions. This competency is about engaging others and about giving up sole ownership.

Interestingly, this is a competency that good CIOs tend to develop because they often do not have significant direct control over where the company is headed and so need to develop this skill more than CEOs do, who can be more directive in their management style.

Influencing the influencers

Another approach is to sound out my idea first with people who advise the person I’m trying to influence. I find out who the decision makers talk to when making decisions. That’s difficult with one or two of my colleagues because they don’t talk to anyone; I just have to go pitch to them. But most people, when you pitch them something big, will have a couple of people they talk to about it. So my first pitch is to those ‘sounding board’ people.

I don’t ask them to bring my idea up with the decision maker themselves; I ask, ‘what do you think so and so would think about an idea like this?’ I’ll listen to how they analyse it and from those conversations I’ll determine whether I’m good to go. I might glean that I need to tweak this or not be as strong on that or maybe I’ll think, ‘this is dead on arrival, I’m not even going to present it’.

"Never go to someone for the first time with a big issue that you’ve got to win. Start with something where it doesn’treally matter and see how that plays out"

Gerry McCartney, CIO, Purdue University

If I’m really stuck, I use my silver bullet approach. I’ll say to the decision makers, “I’ve got to make this happen. It’s really important to the University and so it’s important to me. This is a big one and I won’t be back next week with another request.”

I will already have sounded out the people around them and if necessary applied pressure from underneath and sometimes from above. I want them to interpret that as ‘I’m going to do everything in my power to make this happen, so don’t be surprised if you get a call from your boss on this’. I may use this approach once a year, if that often. That’s not the tool you want to pull out every time you need to influence someone because you use up a lot of credibility with that all-or-nothing approach.

Basic rules

■ Competency in collaboration and influence is not something you can switch on.

■ You have to follow some basic rules, such as always being honest, and work hard to avoid being defensive.

■ You can study your fellow executives to pick up their techniques.

■ Get in there and practise to find your own style. It’s like negotiation; you’ll win some, you’ll lose some.

■ By becoming an expert in strategic collaboration, your business will be better off for your efforts.

Through all of this, I keep in the forefront of my mind that collaboration is a two-way street. People want to influence us and we have to let ourselves be open to that. That can be emotionally wearing. When we’re tired our attitude can be, ‘to hell with it, what we’ve got is good enough’.

But we’ve got to maintain a high energy level and enthusiasm because we’re in a service provision business – people don’t knock on our door and say ‘I just wanted to let you know that you guys are doing a great job’. They are silent until something goes wrong and then they’re on our doorstep to tell us we’re screwing up.