How to ask the CIO to dance

Strong long-term partnerships always start with the earliest steps

Contractors want good relationships with the chief information officers of the agencies they serve. Good relationships mean that contractors can solve problems more quickly, complete projects more smoothly and increase the chances of earning an invitation to work on new projects.

Company leaders need to understand that good relationships don't just pop out of the air. Like great love stories, they have beginnings. And it's in those beginning stages that contractors have their best chance to make a great impression -- or flop.

Don't waste time

The most important piece of advice, offered by industry leaders and CIOs, is to enter the CIO's office with something specific to say. Companies must understand the CIO's business needs and offer specific ideas to help solve a problem. Otherwise, the people on both sides of the table are wasting their time.

"A CIO doesn't want to hear, 'This is what I have to offer. What kind of problems can I help you with?'" said Jay Jones, vice president of global public service sales at BearingPoint. "They want you to show up with a proposed solution for a problem they have. You typically have 15 minutes to half an hour to impress upon a potential client how you can help. I don't want to waste their time, and I don't want to waste my time."

Companies should not expect CIOs to be indulgent, said Alan Balutis, president and chief executive officer of government strategies at Input and formerly the Commerce Department's CIO.

During meetings with prospective contractors, "I used to have a standing rule with my assistant that after seven or eight minutes she should come in and say the [chief financial officer] needs to see me," Balutis said.

If the company representatives were still talking about their capabilities or asking questions they should have already known the answers to, he said he would thank them and excuse himself. If they were offering something useful, he'd tell his assistant that he would be out when the meeting concluded.

At the state level, contractors face CIOs who might have different roles depending on the state's government hierarchy, said Rick Webb, formerly North Carolina's CIO and now a senior manager at Accenture. But the same rule applies.

"The most important thing is that you're able to demonstrate you have a knowledge of their state information technology and business needs," he said. "The worst thing in the world is to approach the chief information officer with a solution in search of a problem."

Some state CIOs focus on policy and others on operations, while still others cover both. The questions contractors need to ask themselves before that meeting are the same in any case, he said.

"What are their challenges, and what can you bring to them of value that makes sense?" Webb asked. "Can you demonstrate success either in private-sector performance, on work you've done for them, or work you've done in other states and other municipalities? I liked partners who could bring to me tried and tested solutions that would meet my needs."

Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW Government, offered a different perspective, however. Industry brings experience, he said. Federal agencies have had CIOs for only a decade, and most individuals who hold the job move into and out of it within a few years.

Although companies need to understand an agency's needs when they meet, Peterson suggested that there might be more room for dialogue.

"It starts off with asking questions and listening, whether you're new in the relationship with that person or that person is new in the job," he said. "You can't just go in and presume that you know the answer to everybody's problems. Once that person gets a feel for your interest in helping them, that's where the dialogue starts. That's where they can benefit from the depth of experience you bring."

David Kriegman, executive vice president and chief operating officer at SRA International, said even companies that understand the importance of offering solutions to specific problems can succumb to the temptation to flex their muscles for the CIO.

"It's a natural thing to think, 'I'm going to show them what I'm good at,'" he said. "And it's a natural thing on the other side [for the CIO] to ask questions about point-solution problems. The CIOs will frequently draw you into a capability discussion even though it's not what they want."

Evolving role

Although many agencies are settling on the CIO's role within IT organizations, some uncertainty still exists from one agency to another.

"The CIO is that person you're hoping is providing thought leadership, consensus building and trying to bring the whole organization together," Peterson said. "The reality of it is that in so many organizations throughout the federal government, the buying decisions occur much closer to the point of use. So it's important that you talk to the end user community. Trying to engage with just the CIO won't get you there."

The CIO should be part of any serious dialogue, however, said Lisa Schlosser, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"In most cases, it's more effective for [companies] to go to the CIO," she said. "At one point or another, the department head will ask for a referral to the CIO anyway. It tends to save time to go directly to the CIO."

The changing role requires companies to alter their approach to the CIO, and successful firms will quickly perceive and adapt to changes, industry leaders said.

"In the past four or five years, I've seen some pretty substantial evolution" in how CIOs think, said James Benson, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. "CIOs have a far greater understanding of the mission and the programs that they're ultimately responsible for."

"The more mature CIOs are laying out programs that really reflect that understanding," said Michael Farber, a vice president at Booz Allen. "The CIO has become far less a technologist. The [CIO] training is changing. They're training business people now. They're training managers."

Similar changes are happening at the state level, too, Webb said.

As with federal agencies, more state CIOs have business backgrounds than was once the case, he said.

"North Carolina's been on a steady course of strengthening the role of the CIO since the 1980s," Webb said. "Other states, when faced with challenges, may have changed the structure and how they operate. In general, I think the role of the CIO has been strengthened over the years."

Cruising for CIOs

Company executives who want to strike up meaningful relationships chief information officers have a few options beyond cold calls or direct mail. A few good ways to meet CIOs are:

  • Industry events, such as annual conferences or smaller gatherings hosted by the Industry Advisory Council, Input and other organizations. "It's in those scenarios where you have the opportunity to have that [first] conversation," said Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW Government.
  • Recommendations. Companies that have helped a CIO at one agency often get recommended to other CIOs. "The government information technology community is still much smaller than people think," said David Kriegman, executive vice president and chief operating officer at SRA International. "CIOs know each other pretty well. They meet, they discuss things. If you impress people, it can only help."
  • Meetings with lower-level agency officials. Your first meeting might not be with the CIO but with deputies, department leaders and other managers, which can help you build credibility and familiarity. In some cases, they might even be more important to the agency's acquisition decision-making process than the CIO is, said Alan Balutis, president and chief executive officer of government strategies at Input and former CIO at the Commerce Department.
  • E-mail. Such messages are less intrusive than phone calls and give the CIO a chance to absorb your message without feeling an immediate need to respond. "I like to get e-mails on new projects [with] innovative ways of thinking about things," said Lisa Schlosser, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

-- Michael Hardy

Do not do this

Companies that want to make a good first impression on chief information officers should avoid some common mistakes.

  • Don't try to strong-arm the CIO. "There are people who will do anything to get into this office," said Charles Havekost, CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Don't seem too eager or aggressive. Some companies send e-mail messages that browbeat or border on being dunning messages, Havekost said. The CIO doesn't owe you anything at this early stage.
  • Don't disrespect the CIO's time. "Don't cold-call me on my cell phone at 7 p.m.," said Lisa Schlosser, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Don't pad your résumé. Highlight all the experience you have, but don't make claims you can't support, said Michael Farber, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. "Rest assured, [the CIO] will immediately come around and say 'prove it,'" he said.
  • Don't neglect the customer's needs. "You don't want to be perceived as always just wanting to sell," said David Kriegman, executive vice president and chief operating officer at SRA International. "You want to be perceived as trying to do what's in their best interests. If you try to push a technology on a customer, that doesn't work."

-- Michael Hardy and Judi Hasson

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