How to Overcome IT's Credibility Challenges

By Patty Azzarello

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I talk to CIOs all the time who struggle to get their plans approved and their efforts recognized. It’s often a thankless job which comes with a constant need to defend one’s honor and one’s budget.

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If you want to establish yourself politically in an organization and be able to do your job without facing obstacles around every corner, high credibility is what gets people off your back and on your side. It helps you go faster and avoid the many time wasters that come in the form of uneducated questions about what you are doing and why it costs so much.

For any executive, success is as much about managing your credibility as it is about a job well done. But for CIOs, there are some extra credibility challenges built right into the role that your peers in other functions don't have to deal with.

No one outside of IT understands what you do. And they don’t really want to. No one outside of IT can possibly understand the millions of moving parts, legacy and dependencies that is IT and they have no real motivation to do so. They want the benefit IT provides, but don’t really care to understand the technology or the cost.

Your business counterparts will never make the effort to bridge this gap. Your choice is either to stay misunderstood or to step up to bridge the gap yourself.

Poor perceptions of IT performance even when it is good. Even if you are meeting all of your agreed service levels, it’s tough to get through a day without someone complaining about IT quality and performance. Even though you perform heroic acts regularly, which avert crisis so no one ever notices or suffers and some services you deliver are best-in-class, it’s that one short email downtime that gets all the notoriety.

You need to communicate service objectives and performance in a way that the business can relate to, (by letting them help define it) or you’ll never get out from under this.

Clarity of costs and benefits is missing. Your peers outside of IT wonder “Where does all that that money go?” They can sense complexity, so they will tend to think that a reduction in budget can be easily absorbed because you are bound to be wasting some money in all that complexity. When there is no clear mapping of costs to business benefits, IT becomes a target of suspicion.

Even if you are confident in your priorities and spending, do all of your peers share that understanding and have confidence in it? Or do they think you should be spending the money “better” (i.e., either by spending less money so they can have it, or by doing more of their pet projects.)

You spend a lot of money. Period. In the company wide roll-up, the IT Budget is typically shown as a single line item and is often a bigger number than the profit for the company. It sticks out.

Meanwhile your peers in the business units are being squeezed for every last bit of profit through their revenue and expense plans. And they are all looking at that one big number. “Why can’t we just cut IT?” It is from this conversation where the “cut 5% of IT” budget directives come from.

I’ve been in those meetings many times and IT isn’t even in the room.

You need to get into those rooms and meetings, and present your plan and budget mapped to the key business initiatives being discussed, instead of as a list of technology costs. You need to be the one to do the clear mapping of IT costs to business priorities and communicate this in a way that the business team can understand it.

No one understands what “legacy” means to IT. Nothing ever really goes away. Businesses have a way of absorbing the financial benefit of an IT initiative and then forgetting that the IT investment to support it must go on.

For example, you rollout a successful inventory management system, and Wall St. will reward your company for the cost savings and increased profits that result. But after a few quarters, that impact is absorbed into the business model, and it is no longer recognized by anyone. But your cost to keep it running goes on. And no one remembers that part.

By keeping the “must” aspects of the legacy in clear business view, and also being personally diligent about reducing general legacy costs year-over-year, you can take this issue off the table. Your helpdesk gives people a bad impression of YOU. The vast majority of people in your company form their entire impression of IT based on their experience with your help desk. If users have a terrible experience with the help desk, they may form the opinion that "IT, (or the CIO), is useless." Your users experience with your helpdesk becomes what you are known for.

For this reason alone you need to view your helpdesk as much more than a helpdesk. It is your store front, and it defines and delivers your IT department's brand. Define those experiences on purpose and market your services to the business through a consistent and responsive helpdesk interface.

There is always too much demand for IT services. You will never be able to do everything that everyone wants, when they want it. The existence of an IT backlog alone can add to the perception that IT is not performing effectively.

They don’t care that you have no budget for the things they want and they have no idea of all the things you are doing. But if all new requests are faced with an 18 month backlog, you don’t stand a chance of growing your credibility.

If this is you, create a process to wipe out backlog and set new priorities so that you can be seen as responsive to the business.

Business communications are not the habit of most IT organizations. The ability to communicate effectively continues to top the list of what is most important for CIOs in the latest benchmarks and studies. As a CIO, you understand this, but it is still not the natural tendency of most IT organizations. IT organizations grow up with a language and a vocabulary all their own that isolates them because no one else understands it.

Communication is critical to building credibility. If you are not communicating with business stakeholders in their vocabulary in a very purposeful way, you will not be able to build or maintain credibility.

It’s up to you. You’ll need to take the time to understand your unique business environment, the personalities, business challenges, and motivations of your peers and management, and their perceptions of IT. But, once you step back and get your specific credibility challenges into focus, you can develop a plan to address and overcome them.

You will need to find ways to communicate in their language and map IT initiatives, services, measures, and budgets to business initiatives that they already understand and are committed to. But it’s up to you to do it. Unfortunately your business colleagues have neither the inclination nor the ability to make the journey to figure out how they should value IT and support you in your role.

Editor’s Note: Each article in the rest of this series will address one of these issues in depth and provide practical ideas and insights for addressing it, building credibility, and increasing your political power.

At age 33, Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager at HP. At age 35 she was running a $1B software business. Patty is now the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group, which delivers practical, experience-based tools to CIO’s and other business leaders through products and services including articles, online programs, executive coaching, public speaking & workshops.