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Get the right seat at the table

Get the right seat at the table

If you want a seat at the table, you need a plan to make it happen. It’s a prioritisation effort — invest leadership time and energy where there is greatest need

Getting a seat at the table is a great CIO ambition. Getting the right seat at the right tables is the better goal.

Irving Tyler, Gartner

As a CIO, you’ve probably thought many times: "I need to get a seat at the table. How do I make this happen?" It’s a question we hear from CIOs in every industry and geography, in profit and non-profit organisations of every size.

Getting a seat at the table is a great CIO ambition. Getting the right seat at the right tables is the better goal.

Unfortunately, many CIOs don't understand what this really means. What table are we talking about? What does "having a seat" even mean? Why should IT sit at the table?

There are many “tables” where you should be sitting. Goals, strategies and initiatives are established by the senior executive team, executives managing business units/lines of business and executives in functional areas, both core and support. Locate all of the important teams, committees and boards to ensure IT is contributing to all leadership processes optimally.

What does it mean to "sit at the table"? Should you be an official member of a given leadership team, involved with all management aspects of that function? Or should you just sit in when executives need information, guidance and decision support because information and technology are critical to a given situation, decision or plan?

These decisions involve determining and negotiating the optimal position IT should take with any given leadership team to ensure the right IT contributions are made to support business planning and execution.

What will your position be?

Gartner has identified four positions IT can establish with the leadership of any business unit or team:

  1. Contributor — respond to functional area requests for IT capabilities and support.

  2. Consultant — provide input on demand to support functional challenges, providing expertise and options.

  3. Teammate — participate in defined executive activities, contributing technology perspective to goal setting, strategic planning and major execution challenges.

  4. Team member — sit on the executive team supporting all major management processes.

Success requires more than just sitting at the table. You must know what you need to contribute, what “language” is spoken, what the cadence and responsibility of the team are. You must be prepared to deliver the requirements needed to succeed.

It’s important to go after active positions as teammate or team member where strategies require major capability changes (digital optimisation), or new business designs (digital transformation). If the enterprise's digital ambitions are forming, you have a great opportunity to contribute expertise and insight, and even guide the development of new business options. These positions take a lot of time and energy. To sit at the more demanding tables, you’ll have to do less in some areas.

Likewise, contribute to certain functional areas as contributors or consultants where there is less change or the function has lower strategic impact.

Gartner analyst Irving Tyler
Gartner analyst Irving Tyler

Don’t be as active on teams where the impact potential and legitimate need for IT is less.

Perform as a business executive

The most important aspect is to perform as a business executive. Work to become a peer and perform as a team member of critical executive organisations and teams. You must be capable of providing the needed IT knowledge/understanding, but also support broader business thinking, analysis, decisions and planning beyond IT.

Every enterprise functional area or capability needs information and technology to perform its mission. The leaders of these organisations need IT intelligence, input, advice and guidance in some form to support their planning and management processes.

You can't be involved in every business decision for every business unit or function — you don't have the time and likely won't have the experience. Don’t spread your time and energy uniformly across every opportunity, nor overspend time and energy with teams that are too demanding.

Concentrate your IT leadership resources with teams responsible for creating strategic value or transforming the enterprise to create new value. Take a less involved position for other functions, but still ensure IT is contributing to its mission successfully.

Don’t let barriers get in the way

A major barrier to establishing the right position may be the existing relationship between business and IT. Business leaders' view of the role IT plays in the success of their domain is often based on historical relationships and past performance. IT is often relegated to a relationship of: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Core functional teams charged with customer engagement and acquisition often view internal IT as offering limited value to commercial strategic planning and solution development. They may value information and technology, but not appreciate the contribution or potential of the IT organisation.

Backoffice domains may view IT as a supplier and place "orders" for capabilities at a tactical level. They want IT, but they want it on their own terms and may overconsume it.

In these situations, IT is poorly positioned. It’s often the result of the CIO and IT leaders accepting a tactical relationship. CIOs want IT to have a "seat at the table," but haven’t done the work needed to prepare themselves to be welcomed or successful when they are asked to join.

If you want a seat at the table, you need a plan to make it happen. It’s a prioritisation effort — invest leadership time and energy where there is greatest need. Don’t be as active on teams where the impact potential and legitimate need for IT is less.

If you master the four IT positions and determine where you need to invest your time and expertise, you can develop strategies to deliver high value with any executive team. Continually evaluate the needs of the enterprise and peers to determine how to effectively support goals, strategies and execution.

Irving Tyler is a research vice president at Gartner. He helps CIOs understand and navigate the complex challenges of business design, strategy development and innovation management to advance business value.

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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