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Why CIOs need to master the art of saying ‘no’

Why CIOs need to master the art of saying ‘no’

The historical IT leadership style associated with service provision took away the opportunity for many CIOs to say ‘no’. But when, why and how you say ‘no’ is an integral part of your reputation as a leader, writes Tina Nunno of Gartner.

Have a clearly articulated reason for the 'no'; be brief but not too brief; and avoid telling stakeholders they’re wrong.

Tina Nunno, Gartner

CIOs are under increasing pressure to deliver growth and competitive advantage through digital initiatives. More than ever, CIOs aspire to be strategic leaders in the enterprise. One of the keys to doing this is creating the capacity to focus on high-value work by avoiding low-value or excess non-strategic efforts.

A core challenge is the inability to say "no" to colleagues and executives, who are accustomed to viewing CIOs as service providers. In a service provider relationship, the business sets expectations that service providers are never supposed to say "no”, even when resources are scarce or the request lacks business value. Tremendous IT resources are squandered yearly due to this dynamic.

Most CIOs express a clear willingness to say "no" and have many valid business reasons for wanting to do so, including the issue of redirecting IT capacity to critical digital initiatives. The reason many don’t isn’t because they lack the desire; rather it’s because they lack the techniques and understanding of the mechanics of how to do it effectively. It’s more complex than uttering the single syllable and CIOs recognise this challenge.

The historical IT leadership style associated with service provision took away the opportunity for many CIOs to say "no”. Practice does make perfect and many CIOs positioned as service providers have had little opportunity to practice saying it. As a result, many either failed to develop the appropriate skill set, or their toolkit became rusty through lack of use.

The mechanics of "no" can be challenging. There are many misconceptions about how and when to say it that can get in the way of successful outcomes. These include:

· You never say “no” to your boss.

· You should always say “no” without actually saying it. Say something like, “yes, but …” instead.

· Saying “no” damages relationships, so avoid doing it at all costs.

· Service providers should never say “no”, or they’ll lose credibility.

Many CIOs will say "yes," worried that they will feel bad later for saying "no." Unfortunately, they sometimes end up feeling resentful as a result of an excessively heavy workload or for working on low-value projects that consume time they would prefer to spend on more strategic or digital initiatives.

In addition, individual beliefs and methods guide how and when we say "no”. Some national cultures have particularly strong norms around saying it, the role of hierarchy and the importance of the individual versus the importance of the community or the collective. You must factor in specific cultural elements in your situation.

When individuals describe a leader, one of the first adjectives they often use describes the leader's relationship with conflict. You must decide what reputation you want and match your conflict management style to that objective

Tina Nunno, Gartner

Achieving positive relationships

Effectively saying “no” accomplishes three things:

1.  Stops or prevents an event from happening – This might be starting a new project, continuing a project or losing resources. If the "no" stops the event, this is the first indicator of CIO success.

2.  Creates or maintains positive relationships – Effectively saying "no" communicates to others that you are a leader who has values, rules and priorities of your own. You also position yourself as a partner who expects reciprocal relationships from peers, rather than a one-way service relationship where IT gives and others take.

3.  Sends a specific leadership message – When individuals describe a leader, one of the first adjectives they often use describes the leader's relationship with conflict. You must decide what reputation you want and match your conflict management style to that objective.

To be successful, strive to say “no” assertively rather than aggressively. This achieves positive relationships and reputational objectives. It establishes a respectful approach to your objectives and those of the requestor.

To deliver an assertive “no,” you should state empathy, but adapt to each stakeholder and situation; have a clearly articulated reason for the "no”; be brief but not too brief; and avoid telling stakeholders they’re wrong. Even though one will walk away giving a "no" and the other receiving it, both accept the outcome in a healthy exchange.

Building a reputation as a leader

If you master saying "no," it creates a reputation as a leader with opinions and positions of your own. You also develop a reputation for making difficult decisions in a diplomatic manner. If you can do this, you’ll gain greater confidence from other key executives, colleagues and your teams. Every "no" event that you engage in will inform that reputation.

When, why and how you say "no" is an integral part of your reputation as a leader. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. One of the most important variables is hierarchy, which matters because there’s a significant difference in the risk associated with saying "no" to your subordinate, boss, colleague or client. As a result, different tactics apply.

Have the end state in mind beforehand and plan ahead for the next round of negotiations based on your target's relative position in the hierarchy. Most importantly, whenever possible, get to an assertive "no" with empathy for the best outcome.

Tina Nunno is a vice president and Gartner fellow. She specialises in CIO-related leadership issues, including working with the board of directors, executive communications, change management and governance strategies. She is the author of The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing: A Machiavellian Guide to Successful IT Leadership.


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