IT Leadership - Building a Business Case to Save Your Job

Jun 10, 2010

Pam Baker

Nearly every CIO knows the build-a-business-case drill when it comes to validating a new tech buy. Few, however, are aware that they may need to build a business case to secure their job or to move ahead in a promotion. Many erroneously believe simply keeping IT running smoothly will win them recognition for a job well done.

“Think of it this way, no one ever sends the water company thank you notes for keeping the water running,” said J. Greg Hanson, executive vice president of Operations at Criterion Systems and former CIO for the U.S. Senate.

That is not to say, however, that performance doesn’t count.

“If you are performing, either your organization will recognize and reward you, or your industry will,” said Shawn Banerji, managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, a leading international Executive Search firm. “It’s hard to keep real talent in check."

The steps to building the case

The formula for job retention starts on the most basic level: ensuring flawless information flows.

“No matter how elegant the future strategy might be, the CIO will not survive if the business is in jeopardy because of a shaky IT foundation,” said Phil Garland, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ advisory practice and the firm’s National CIO Advisory Solutions Leader.

The next step is ensuring relevance to the business as a whole and to the CFO’s and CEO’s goals in particular. Pay careful attention to the goals of these C-level executives because they can widely differ from one another’s.

“The CFO's agenda may include governance, risk and compliance, or efficient and timely closing of financials, with roll ups from around the world, or security generally,” explained Garland. “Whereas the CEO may be interested in lowering production or distribution costs, obtaining better information about the customer's activities, or helping to establish new sources of revenues such as through social networks.”

The third step involves transitioning to an IT-integration-with-the-business mindset. Yes, you’ve heard this before but it bears repeating as it is a pivotal step to career success.

“Remember that the value is not about MIPS, bytes, and uptime -- the type of metrics CIOs often promote,” said Garland. “Focus on efficiencies brought to the table, better business operation you enabled, and activities that help grow the business. In other words, the values the rest of the C-suite is accountable for. That's what ‘strategic’ means.”

The fourth step is to step up and present ideas that lead to business growth rather than simply proposing solutions to support existing or proposed operations.

“CIOs at several companies we work with are moving outside of the traditional IT back-office focus into business value-creating efforts, creating a business partnership that helps explore and exploit technologies such as data analysis, social networking, and mobile to more profitably engage with customers,” said Garland.

Show, don’t tell

Tooting your own horn is not the same as presenting a successful business case in your own behalf. “Self promotion for its own sake will be badly received,” said Garland. “The Latin expression 'Non sibi, sed alles', (Not for oneself, but for others.) is the mantra of successful CIOs .”

Become an indispensable adviser and thought leader so that C-level executives turn to you for solutions and ideas. The business case for keeping you on or for promoting you further is thus built slowly over time and in small, daily doses. This calls for considerable finesse and a strong ability for sales.

“Selling is a skill and technique, usually involving relationship development and finding the value the client is seeking and delivering that value,” said Garland. “CIOs can do that with business unit leaders and others in the C-suite. The big challenge for many CIOs is selling and communicating their ideas. It isn't surprising that selling their own value to the firm is something they find hard to do.”

However, selling is something everyone knows how to do -- they just do not realize they know how. Look back on your own life. Look at all the times you convinced your parents or teachers to let you do something. Think of the times you persuaded your friends to go somewhere or the time you convinced your spouse to marry you. Each such instance in your life was a natural sales job. Now is the time to brush off those skills and deploy them with the same tact you used back when.

Interacting more often with C-level executives will help you to communicate in more natural and acceptable ways. It will also increase your overall exposure in a more subtle manner.

“Get up from your desk and get out of the computer room and look and act like a business person and not a technologist,” advised Hanson.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making.

Tags: CIO's job, IT Leadership, careers, Baker, IT value,

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