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The Political Skills Of Successful CIOs

Politicians are held in generally low regard by the American public. Three-quarters of the individuals surveyed in monthly polls over the past year are dissatisfied with the performance of the U.S. Congress. A poll of parents conducted in 2020 discovered that the most popular career choice they desired for their children was in a STEM profession. STEM careers were the top choice of 39% of those surveyed. Only 20% of the parents identified Government and Law as a desired career choice.

This contrast is reflected in the choices that students make when they attend college. Political Science and Government was the 20th most popular degree obtained by American students during the 2020-2021 academic year. Computer Science was the 12th most popular degree. Perhaps equally interesting, the 60,000 Computer Science degrees awarded in 2020-2021 were 10% more than those conferred in the prior year.

It’s ironic that technology careers are held in such higher regard than political careers when in fact, successful leaders in both professions need to become proficient in very similar skills.

CIOs need to keep a lot of people happy.

CIOs are the Quartermasters of their companies. Their teams ensure that all employees receive the equipment, network access, business applications, etc. that they require to perform their jobs. IT teams are expected to respond instantly, empathetically and successfully to any employee issue or request regarding the use of their company’s IT resources.

CIOs play a different role in pleasing their fellow executives. CIOs are routinely called upon to implement new technical capabilities on time and on budget to support strategic business initiatives launched by their executive peers.

Elected officials are expected to assist their constituents in dealing with government-related problems, while at the same time remaining in legislative lockstep with party elders controlling critical campaign funds. The analogy with a CIO’s responsibility to deliver constituent services while supporting the business initiatives of their executive peers is obvious.

CIOs need to be good fundraisers.

Individuals embarking on political careers are frequently surprised by the amount of time they’re required to spend on fundraising – either asking for more money or explaining their legislative goals and accomplishments to past donors.

Does this sound vaguely familiar? CIOs are constantly lobbying for additional funds, explaining what they’ve accomplished with the funds they’ve already received and defending themselves from reductions or restrictions on their current spending plans.

U.S. Congressmen at least get two years to raise the funds they need to conduct their next campaign. CIOs need to lobby for the funding required by their organizations every year! In some instances preliminary budgeting discussions may start as early as two or three quarters before the end of the current fiscal year.

CIOs need to spend most of their time managing relationships.

Naive individuals in the early stages of their IT careers may think that CIOs are clairvoyant oracles who conceive and implement revolutionary technology initiatives that transform the business prospects of their companies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Successful CIOs spend the majority of their time establishing collaborative working relationships with their executive colleagues, learning from their peers in other companies and influencing the behavior of the managers within their own organizations.

CIOs don’t tell their business partners what they should be doing with regard to technology. They need to be good listeners who can establish the trust and respect that’s required for business partners to allow them to participate in future business initiatives. CIOs who fail to develop such trust and respect will find themselves sitting on the sidelines watching third party consulting firms implement new forms of business-critical technology within their companies.

Politicians are the ultimate relationship managers. Their principal job is to establish relationships with the voters they represent to ensure that their actions reflect their constituents’ concerns and desires. In addition, they need to develop trusted relationships with other lawmakers who can assist them in accomplishing their legislative agendas.

Transformational CIOs need to stay on message.

CIOs can be easily distracted by the never ending stream of tactical issues that crop up every year. Budget problems, personnel conflicts, failing projects, disgruntled customers and contentious vendors can easily undermine the strategic goals of any CIO, no matter how important those goals might be. It’s easy to look back at the end of a year and take some satisfaction in your organization’s ability to survive the annual minefield of tactical crises but it can be equally disappointing to realize that the business relevance and impact of your organization hasn’t materially improved over the past 12 months. You’ve simply lived to fight another day.

Most CIOs have an intuitive understanding of the strategic roles their teams could potentially play within their companies. They have an equally perceptive understanding of the deficiencies in skills, staffing and business relationships that are keeping their teams from assuming those roles. Truly successful CIOs become evangelists who convert key constituencies within their companies into believers in the strategic visions they have for their IT teams. They find creative ways of enlisting their executive colleagues and their own organizations in an ongoing crusade to increase the strategic business impact of IT.

Much like politicians, strategic CIOs establish a stump speech that they use time and time again to align the multiple constituencies within their companies with the long term goals they’ve established for their organizations. This speech may need to be customized for individual audiences but the underlying message is always the same.

Repetition of a compelling message will eventually overcome the centrifugal forces deflecting an IT organization from realizing its strategic potential. Many successful politicians have discovered the power of repetitive messaging as well.

Second career opportunities for CIOs?

If successful CIOs are exceptionally proficient at developing the skills listed above, why don’t more of them go into politics?

Perhaps they’ve become good at practicing these skills, but simply don’t derive much personal satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment from exercising them? Maybe.

Perhaps they don’t have the same need for the personal praise and adulation that many politicians crave? Doubtful.

Or perhaps – just perhaps – they were fooling themselves all along and never really became sufficiently adept at these skills to succeed as politicians. This just might be the reason that few, if any, CIOs embark on second careers as candidates for public office. At the end of the day, maybe they’re just not that good at pleasing everybody, raising money, managing relationships and articulating a compelling vision for their organizations. Probably!

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