Can CIOs avoid politics?

Typical CIO Attitudes to Politics

Many CIOs are scared of organisational politics and think it is a dirty business. Often CIOs come from a technology background and technical expertise is their forte. Politics, and wheeling and dealing are not their comfort zone. They focus their energy on finding the best technology solutions for the business’s problems. The CIO’s daily battles are about up-time  service delivery, and project delivery. They shy away from business level politics wherever they can. Many CIOs see politics as a ‘necessary evil’ or some sort of ‘game’ to play. Those who tend to look at politics in this way tend not to be very good at dealing with company politics.

What is politics?

The word politics comes from the Greek word politika, modeled on Aristotle’s “affairs of the city”, the name of his book on governing and governments. Today’s politics and corporate politics diverge somewhat from this concept. What we mean by politics today is ‘activities that are related to getting or keeping power within a particular company, organization.

Position and Expertise is not enough

There are three types of power: structural power, expert power, and prestige power. Structural power comes from the organisational hierarchy. Expert power comes from business and technical knowledge, while prestige power comes from one’s own connections. A study found that structural and prestige power were positively related to the business-IT relationship, while expert power was not:


“Expert and structural power is important, but they will never be enough on their own, because the “smartest guy in the room” needs to be able to influence and lead others to make a difference, and that’s about people and relationships…not expert knowledge. “

“What you know in an expert sense about IT is table stakes. What you know about how to use technology to create value for the organisation is what gets you to the CIO role. What helps you succeed in that role is your ability to effectively wield political power to get things done – not expert power or even structural power.”

CIO Challenges

CIOs face many challenges. Even when a CIO is at the top, their rank is seen to be inferior to the head of the business. This means that making a case for the right technology, budget or resources is that much harder for a CIO to do. At the same time, the CIO has to deliver on promised solutions and assure that the expected value is obtained from these solutions:

“The CIO is one of the few roles who are providing service to all the peers and to the board. To match organizational needs with organizational resources, a CIO must engage in the governing processes (or ‘politics’). This is the core to good governance.”

The CIO is well positioned to name organisational inefficiencies, threats, and opportunities. The CIO’s effective participation is essential for lifting organisational performance. Without the right power and influence, can the CIO really be able to be an effective agent of transformation?

In order to be an effective agent of transformation, a CIO has to: effectively manage key relationships with peers and board members; manage both formal and informal communication; and be able to interact and communicate with other members of the executive team in business terms.

Board Level Effectiveness

Business Strategy, Risk Management, and IT Oversight are often the top three items on the Board agenda. CIOs are the people who convey IT wisdom to the board room. Most Boards don’t have a technology background and need the CIO to explain the value that technology delivers.

The CIO is faced with the challenge of educating Board members and C- level executives on what information technologies are, and what they can and cannot really do in terms of delivering a measurable return on investment. There is not better person than the CIO to engage, inform and influence the organisational business decisions.  However, unfortunately there is usually a gulf between technology and the organisation. This means that the CIO  not only needs to be an IT expert, but also a business leader at the board level.

Why the CIO Needs to Master Politics?

Politics is a tarnished word; there is nothing inherently bad about it. Politics is going on all around us, even in the most seemingly non-political organisations. Failing to understand and embrace organisational politics is probably the single biggest reason for the alienation and even failure of a CIO. CIOs have said:

“As I came up through the technology side of things, I was a bit ‘late to class’ in realizing that I needed to develop my business value in such ways. It’s blindingly clear now, however, that such soft skills are critically needed for IT professionals intending to reach business executive or C-level positions (they’re actually far more important than targeted technical skill).”

“Regardless of ones expertise in technology, the ability to influence leadership to carry out technological goals does not seem possible without having to navigate the existing political climate successfully. Laying low and avoiding the political environment will not get a lot accomplished since communication is impeded.”

Politics is about Relationships with Stakeholders

relationshipThe CIO needs to understand their stakeholders. What are their pain points? What drives them? How can the CIO as a head of the largest service delivery element of any organisation serve and help them? Understanding stakeholders allows CIOs to influence decisions and outcomes. This is essentially what organisational politics is all about.

Managing executive level politics is really just another name for managing relationships. This is a critical element of any C-level role, but essential for a CIO. As technology has become the central pillar of enterprises, it is not just a technical decision; it’s a business decision. As corporate strategy is so tightly integrated, CIOs end up making decisions about how information is used, and how money moves, which are political decisions:

“If “politics” is the act of understanding other decision makers are worried about, how much risk they’re willing to take, experiences good or bad they’ve had, and/or their views on topics, then how can that be a negative thing or a necessary evil?”

Success Depends on the Ability to get Things done

As much as the CIO may be respected for their technical or business knowledge, it is their ability to influence (play politics) that actually gets things done in the business. Political skills are essential to for CIOs to sell their ideas, and to know who to get on their side in different situations. In order to influence others, the CIO needs to have a good relationship with other executives. This requires the CIO to understand other executives’ goals, aspirations, and challenges, and have the ability to see things from their perspective and find common ground. The CIO needs to be as good at influencing others as any other C-level executives.

In Summary

A CIO’s position and expertise alone are not enough for the CIO to be effective. It is also essential for the CIO to build trust and relationships with peers to be heard. Understanding stakeholder interests, seeing their points of view and building coalitions around shared interests is necessary for the CIO to get things done in modern businesses. This is corporate politics and CIOs can’t avoid dealing with it, if they wish to do their work effectively.

6 Replies to “Can CIOs avoid politics?”

  1. My Industrial experince of over 35 years sense this issue in the context of demolising image of other (especially peers) to the decision makers (we call superiors) and feel influential (althogh they are not..) to impress the peers to know them as helper or damager. Most of the partial decision are the basic cause of lack of judging the right people in absence of any data or exclusive attention.

    In turn the entire episod of misguiding superiors leads to an understanding of leadership funda, and in turn leads to undue favourism.

  2. Something near and dear to my heart. I do appreciate that CIOs can not and should not avoid politics because that could be dangerous for the whole IT department. However my concern is that I have seen time and again incompetence in most of the areas is compensated by single competency “playing politics”. As I have learnt from hard experience one needs to be aware of the politics and work within system to some extent but when CIOs start playing politics within their own departments and DRs that is the time it pollutes the whole work environment. Finally politics could not be played at cost of professional ethics and social obligations to your team.

    1. Hi Dinsha,

      Thank you for your comment. The focus of the article is not to suggest CIOs ‘play politics’ but to focus on building relationships with other executives and get their buy-in for the IT projects and proposals. This is far more complex, as it requires that CIO understand the different interests of the stakeholders and align propositions that satisfy these interests. Many CIOs struggle in this area.

  3. Thanks Hemant. It is an excellent article and very insightful. As you said personal experience with all of us with strong technology back ground is reflected in this article.

    If there is way to develop training on hows and whats of politics, even if they are gudelines, will be well received by target audience. To a great extent these are probably soft skills that cannot easily be taught. However, what not to do may also be useful. Some times an act done out of context or without being aware of people and personality puts them at odd with others

  4. Hi Hemant,
    A very good article. While you have mentioned about CIOs needing to master politics, it is also very relevant to all levels of management, to varying degree.

  5. Hemant,
    Very good article. The word Politics has a stigma about it due to dirty politics being played around all of us. You have made an important point that politics is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be used in a positive manner to achieve the desired results.

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