How CIOs can win over skeptical CEOs

Selling chief execs on digital platforms requires CIOs to focus on outcomes—and seek help from their C-suite peers

Selling major technology initiatives to CEOs has grown easier over the years, but CIOs still report pushback over a range of issues. According to a new survey of 600 executives worldwide by ESI ThoughtLab and ServiceNow, 82% of respondents see digital enterprise platforms as vital to the overall business, yet only 40% of CEOs share the same view.

One possible reason for the gap in support is that senior execs don’t sufficiently loop the boss into the process. “The CEO will definitely want to be well briefed and feel like he or she is part of that decision-making process, especially if a project is expensive and disruptive enough,” says Mark Settle, a book author and a former CIO of seven companies, including Okta, Staples, and BMC Software.

So how do you make your best case? Fortunately, several measures exist to aid CIOs in their quest to get buy-in. The No. 1 rule is to think big picture and strategic; CEOs leave the tactical to others, so if you can focus on high-level objectives, you improve your chances.

Start with the big picture

The survey found that CEOs are more inclined toward digital transformation of the entire organization, or building a culture of innovation. Yet they seem to value digital enterprise platforms less than any other C-level executive. For CIOs, that suggests they may need to focus most on educating other key executives, highlighting how digital enterprise platforms are already showing they can help drive the larger goals of digital transformation.

The CEO will definitely want to be well briefed and feel like he or she is part of that decision-making process, especially if a project is expensive and disruptive enough.

In the survey, 43% of CEOs said they expected that within three years their companies will have largely or fully implemented an overall digital platform. Yet it’s up to CIOs to show how individual initiatives become part of a whole that drives results. CEOs need to know how these initiatives will accelerate innovation and improve time to market; more than anyone else in the C-suite, CIOs need to prove the case.

CIOs can be very helpful, says Settle, “to talk about how, from a change management perspective, [digital platform investment] is going to be for the company.”

Focus on outcomes

In Settle’s experience, CEOs need to hear about how and where these digital-platform investments will make clear impacts across the organization. Fortunately, digital initiatives often come with clear lines to cost savings and profitability, building competitive advantage, and other benefits.

The survey data also points to clear outcomes from specific areas of investment in digital platforms. Surveyed organizations, for example, reported performance lifts from cloud-based open platforms, robotic process automation (RPA), and artificial intelligence (AI). Personalized customer experience platforms also yielded dividends.

But CIOs can’t leave it to spreadsheets to make their case, Settle argues; and they may need to present help from their C-suite peers to make it happen. CIOs need to generate “real enthusiasm” from other business unit leaders, says Settle, before they can expect a go-ahead from the CEO. As a CFO once told Settle, “I don’t believe any of those business-case numbers you show me, because you can make the numbers do whatever you want them to do.” Hearing directly from a business leader, the CFO told Settle, “counts 10 times more than any ROI number you give me.”

Consider cross-functional benefits

Organizations still mired in silo structures are often keen to find ways to bring disparate groups together. CEOs in particular are more likely to consider and approve digital-platform solutions that offer cross-functional benefits. In the ESI/ServiceNow survey, 26% of CEOs view silos as a barrier to successful digital enterprise platform implementation.

Not all CEOs are circumspect when it comes to digital platforms, of course, but their reticence can be a lesson in clarifying objectives. CIOs would do well to come well prepared.