Organizations breed office politics. All employees—from the loading docks to the spacious corner offices—deal with office politics on their own level, and CIOs are not exempt.
In fact, office politics are likely a bit more involved for technology leaders, as they interact with such a large audience. Most CIOs maintain a myriad of relationships, from the boardroom to the lunchroom, because most enterprises use technology in every nook and cranny these days.
In tapping the experiences of TechRepublic members, we found no shortage of opinions on how to deal with today’s corporate political landscapes and land mines. Our members, and some industry experts, also shared plenty of tips and strategies for navigating what can sometimes be career-damaging corporate waters.
Everyone's got an agenda
Office politics are a given for CIOs in multinational companies because of the nature of those organizations and the number of divisions/departments involved with projects and systems, observes Steven Yau, director, regional IT and operations best practice at Gap International Sourcing, Ltd., in Hong Kong.
“Different divisions have different vested interests, and some may not always be in the best interests of the company. When different groups of people get together, each with their own agendas, there will invariably be contention and, therefore, politics,” says Yau.
One expert, however, has a slightly different take. Lawrence MacGregor Serven, author of The End of Office Politics as Usual: A Complete Strategy for Creating a More Productive and Profitable Organization, believes that office politics are not a "personal" issue but stem from weak management.
“Office politics quickly fills a leadership void,” he explains. “If you get everyone on board and create a strong team with a sense of direction, then CIOs won’t have to deal with office politics.”
Politics affect everyone—even outside hired hands
While it would seem that outside consultants would be spared dealing with an enterprise’s internal politics, that’s not the usual outcome, says Jeff Spock, an independent consultant specializing in data warehousing and Web site operations.
“There are business managers who feel they are more qualified than some techie VP to choose the technologies that will underpin their strategies,” explains the consultant, who works at Sophia Antipolis, a high-tech center in France.
Yet, sometimes the politics work in favor of outside experts, he adds.
“There are managers who have longstanding relationships with external providers (Big 5 firms, consultants, subcontractors) and often have more faith in them than in their own internal IT resources,” says Spock.
Spock says hard decisions often have to be made about in-house development vs. outsourcing—a decision that angers internal employees and that sometimes means internal layoffs. The impact on IT staff morale can be big, he notes.
“A CIO is inevitably involved in office politics, and the skill with which he/she handles it is, sadly, a key success factor,” says Spock.
Ways to keep office politics at bay
Bob Ritcey, director of data warehousing at Software International in Hollywood, FL, says he tries his best to minimize office politics with common sense and reason.
“I strongly believe you must consider all of the players’ best interests and be able to defend a decision,” he explains. “If you’re working with reasonable folks, it shouldn't be a problem. The unreasonable players are going to lose the battle.”
The "reasonable" aspect ties directly into listening and communicating, say some IT pros, because of all of the "personalities of the players involved with office politics." Trey Schaffer, an independent IT consultant in St. Louis, MO, goes so far as to say that personality dynamics are the foundation for office politics.
“Office politics is a charged euphemism for a form of intracompany communication,” Schaffer explains. “We should assume that every individual may have personal interests that are not completely aligned with the organization's interests. It is the company's responsibility to minimize this gap. Communication is the primary function in the CIO job description.”
After toiling for large companies for several years, Yau has three valuable tips for squashing office politics:
- Align the IT efforts with company goals and objectives. Yau admits that this can be difficult when company goals change, or are absent altogether, but IT can always realign.
- Continuously seek buy-in from business partners—whether outside clients or internal users. Consistently talk to partners to gauge needs and requirements and maybe most importantly, listen to what they’re saying.
- Communicate the department’s focus. Regular meetings with business partners will help develop rapport and reduce the chance of misunderstandings and the breeding of politics.
Thwarting politics on the personal front
Lawrence Alter, president of The Arthur Group, a Minneapolis-based career management firm, points out that office politics can sometimes become personal politics, especially for top executives—a detrimental transition that unfortunately isn't given proper attention.
“Top IT executives are usually far too preoccupied with their responsibilities to be concerned about internal politics,” says Alter, adding that ignoring the issue only compounds the potential for problems.
Here are Alter’s recommendations for keeping personal politics at bay:
- CIOs need to be diplomatic in dealing with all problems, both above and below their respective executive level.
- CIOs should act as a mentor and guide to others, which will lead to stronger leadership skills and staff respect.
- CIOs need to recognize that success is based on the success of the team and that the team needs constant motivation.
- When attending senior management meetings, CIOs shouldn’t disparage the ideas of others and should offer their own ideas and suggestions.
- As CIOs or tech leaders develop processes or techniques, they should examine whether those processes can benefit other units and share their knowledge. This will foster a "team player" approach.
It may seem like an overly simplistic view, but management experts say that consideration of others and mutual respect are key elements to avoiding political fires and stomping out sparks.
"It’s important for CIOs to understand politics, but not practice politics,” explains Alter, as “managers and employees generally like those who do not appear to have hidden agendas.”