How CIOs Can Grow and Spend Political Capital to Achieve Executive Impact

Successful IT Leaders collect and spend political capital through three main sources: their position, borrowing it from others and their personal power base.

Irving Tyler, Distinguished Research VP, Gartner, Inc.

October 19, 2021

5 Min Read
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Imagine this: You are a CIO at a large, global corporation who is driving the implementation of a new customer experience platform. It went live and then suddenly crashed the following week. You already know the money and time spent on this project and realize any hiccups will be costly or customers might be lost. Your CEO would like you to report on the incident by the end of the week to the Board and rest of the C-suite. What’s your next move?

The successful CIO responds using both the rational and political side of his or her brain, balancing the needs and challenges of their enterprise with their own ambitions and needs.

On the rational side, the CIO gathers root cause analysis data and consults his or her teams, develops forward-looking options and creates compelling deliverables to communicate next steps. On the political side, the CIO will immediately determine the strength of his or her political capital and determine how to spend it to save their credibility.

What is Political Capital?

According to Gartner, political capital is the currency of power and interests. It is accumulated by actively building expertise and establishing the right relationships built on demonstrated trust and goodwill to ultimately exert influence that achieves results.

There are three key sources of political capital all CIOs need to understand and develop:

  1. Position: Every role has an official, intended and expected level of authority. This is the base of political capital for the CIO. The key is to know your job description intimately and practice this authority to ensure it’s recognizable to others.

  2. Credit: A single leader can never have enough positional capital to get big things done. Large, digital efforts need a team of leaders, which requires CIOs to learn to borrow political capital from others. This is accomplished by developing a “credit rating” via visible partnerships with those who have a strong power base and position. Credit goes both ways, so CIOs should seek opportunity to lend others their political capital to set up reciprocity when they need it.

  3. Personal power base: Political capital can be developed and grown on one’s own by being a maven (e.g., having the knowledge base that others desire), a connector (e.g., having a powerful network and serving as a go-to source to access said network), and a persuader (e.g., embodying good communication, presentation, negotiation, and interpersonal skills).

How to Use Political Capital

While there are many uses of political capital, there are a few scenarios for which every CIO must reserve political capital: getting hired or promoted when there are other candidates; winning support for a big-ticket item that not everyone supports; and dealing with trouble whether it involves you or your team, now or in the future.

Let’s apply the three sources of political capital to a situation where a CIO needed support to drive a new digital initiative forward.

A CIO at a large energy company wanted to expand the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at her organization. Many business and technology leaders are confused by and distrustful of AI, because of hype, jargon and the abstract nature of much AI discussion that is often divorced from concrete business value. The CIO needed to bring a shared understanding to senior leadership about what AI is, what it can and cannot do, and all risks associated with it, so here’s how she spent her political capital leading up to and while sharing her grand plans for AI:

  • From a positional perspective, the CIO used her existing role and shared her wealth of resources to help the CFO with a separate initiative that was important to the success of the CFO’s agenda.

  • When borrowing political capital, the CIO sought out stakeholders with common objectives that shared her vision for AI to garner further support.

  • From a personal perspective, one of the most important things the CIO did was serve as a digital translator for the value of expanding AI at the organization.

Spend Political Capital Wisely

Every currency has an exchange rate, and political capital is not exempt. Political capital exchange rates are improved when you use your positional political capital to demonstrate your team is helping the enterprise succeed. The more you act to build your credit rating, or accumulate the right alliances, and show the depth of your knowledge, network, and skills, the more favorable your exchange rate will be.

The old adage, “you have to spend money to make money” is true for political capital. Political capital should be spent on a continuous basis and used to buy introductions to additional stakeholders that expand your network, connect you to new and sought-after information sources that increases your business acumen and value, and help you find and cultivate potential allies where you can exchange political capital. It shouldn’t be hoarded and then spent randomly to leave the outcome to change -- spend political capital judiciously and test its value to maximize longer term gains.

Avoid These Pitfalls When Spending Political Capital

Like any investment, CIOs need to have a well-formed strategy to avoid the following pitfalls:

  • Poor exchange rate or interest rate management: Investing in the wrong allies or even weak and declining allies will result in a bad investment and possibly result in a poor credit rating.

  • Treating key stakeholders poorly in a public way via ego-based behavior: This will cause your investment to go down the drain and kill your existing portfolio. It only takes one misstep to hurt your portfolio significantly.

  • Poor portfolio balancing: You need a balanced portfolio to achieve optimal outcomes. Don’t limit your efforts to just one form of political capital, and ensure you are investing well in advance of when you will need it.

In the end, political capital is a critical investment that leaders need to make, nurture, and use to achieve executive impact. Political capital cannot be manifested overnight and requires a thoughtful, long term and continuous effort. It needs to be used in conjunction with all major efforts by the CIO and should complement the rational aspects of any important work.

Irving Tyler is a distinguished research vice president at Gartner who is discussing the importance for CIOs to build political capital and other similar leadership topics at this week’s Americas IT Symposium/Xpo.

About the Author(s)

Irving Tyler

Distinguished Research VP, Gartner, Inc.

Irving Tyler is a distinguished research vice president at Gartner who is discussing the importance for CIOs to build political capital and other similar leadership topics at this week’s Americas IT Symposium/Xpo.

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