You are invited to report on IT at meeting of the board. You systematically work your way through the list of items you want to bring to the senior management team’s attention. The last of which is the two-day website outage that took place the previous weekend.
You are disappointed but not surprised at the general rolling of eyes response to your overview. You are particularly disappointed given the innovative advances you are making in respect to virtualising the network and visualising the data.
As the meeting breaks up you gather your belongings. The others have reformed into smaller groups and are vigorously engaged in animated discussion as they leave the room.
You are convinced there is some political manoeuvring taking place and that it is only a matter of time before you need to rekindle your ever deepening relationship with those head hunters that seem to really get you.
You reflect that this appears to be a regular occurrence and are convinced that it is your unwillingness to play politics that is driving this cycle.
Let's consider what might actually be happening as opposed to what you perceive is happening. This boardroom alienation is political for sure. That is the nature of leadership and life in general. Traditional CIOs who have taken a technology career path tend not to be comfortable with the un-digital 'shades of grey' world of human interactions.
Most of us came into the IT world because of our logical reasoning capability. Over time we were conditioned to be very task oriented. All good characteristics as far as getting the job done is concerned. However it is likely that very little investment was made by your employers in respect of your participative and social skills.
By participative, I don't necessarily mean the ability to share one's toys or join in with group activities. At CIO level I am referring to the ability to call upon others when it comes to decision making, eg. your team. The irresistible temptation being that as you are the subject matter expert you should make the decision and delegate its execution to others.
Even though you may well be participative in general, do you remain so when the pressure is on?
By social skills, I don't necessarily imply that a career in IT and incidences of Asperger's syndrome are strongly correlated. At CIO level I am referring to the ability to read the signals in terms of what your peers are really thinking and the ability to influence the perspectives of others without solely relying on Euclidian or Boolean logic.
Both participative and social skills are key elements of political skill. Our inability to play politics is likely a symptom of our weakness in respect of participative and social skills. CIOs who claim not to play politics believing that being the laird to an efficient and available technology estate will secure their place in the top team are at the very least naive.
Politics is inherently selfish in nature. You can choose to use stealth and deviousness to achieve your objectives. Or you can appeal to the interests of others and capitalise on the resources they make available for your joint cause. The latter tends to deliver longer lasting results and requires less looking over one's shoulder.
Developing social skills are needed if you are not naturally predisposed to cultivating relationships, establishing trust and asking for help. Social skills also require an ability to establish what is important to others without it being expressed in a functional specification. Reading body language and facial expressions are both important related skills.
In the boardroom scenario above, the CIO put the website outage last because it was technically the most trivial of the issues. For everyone else in the room it was the most important because of its business impact. This should not have been a surprise. And even if it was, the CIO would have been wise to quickly establish why it was such an issue!
As it turns out it doesn't require great social skills to understand what CEOs, and CFOs for that matter, care about. Reading the business strategy, annual report or any other missive from the CEO will very quickly help you understand what the strategic imperatives are. When your list of items is aligned with the strategic priorities, the other board members will consider you to be on the same team.
The participative piece can be difficult. You know that many of the senior management team do not understand technology and the issues associated with delivering a complex n-tier heterogeneous virtualised packet-switched pre-Apple app store. As a subject matter expert you also feel there is little to be gained in seeking their counsel.
But that is the classical marketing mistake; having the belief that you know what the users need better than they do. And in some respects you may well do, but perception is everything (again another minefield for the digitally-predisposed) and if the users don't want it, you may as well work for the competition in terms of wasting resources. Data warehouses were a wonderful concept in the 1990s, much like knowledge management, but the IT industry raced ahead of the users and both fizzled out.
Put simply, you will gain greater traction in the boardroom if you are genuinely interested in what is important to them. If this doesn't come naturally to you then perhaps use a politics framework to advance your agenda.
Ultimately we need to treat your users and senior management like customers and get comfortable with the notion that 'the customer is always right', even if both you and Dr Spock could argue to the contrary.