Building Credibility on All Sides

Effective leadership begins with credibility. Technology executives taken seriously by their associates are better able to lead teams, develop successful vendor relationships, and communicate a clear vision for their organizations. On the vendor side, demonstrating a pragmatic understanding of the customer's situation can lay the foundation for a long-term partnership. For those changing roles—switching sides or becoming a chief technology officer—the ability to establish credibility quickly is critical to making a successful transition.

My own career has included a number of such transitions. After several years as a technology consultant to financial services firms such as Alliance Capital, Barclay's Capital, and Deutsche Bank (DB), I joined Goldman Sachs (GS) as an employee, ultimately serving as a vice-president in the firm's technology division. Having worked extensively with Citrix (CTXS) products, I became involved with the Citrix customer council, then joined the company last year as vice-president and CTO for the Citrix desktop division. My experiences as both customer and vendor have given me valuable perspective on the dynamics on both sides of the table and the challenges involved in making the transition from one role to another—both within and between companies.

For vendors, establishing credibility can be an uphill battle, with customers made wary by too much marketing hype and hard sell. The first step is to engage in honest, realistic conversations that focus on real business value, not just fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Don't take the approach that your solution should immediately replace everything. Understand that your implementation will likely take place in parallel with other initiatives of equal or greater importance to the customer. A phased approach that takes into account the customer's full range of organizational priorities will show that you're in it for the long haul and that you care about enabling success, not just making a sale.

Customers Need Credibility, too

Once the project is underway, it quickly becomes clear who on the customer side really gets how the product works and how it can best support the business. Build trust and relationships with such people early on. Avoid getting distracted by extraneous noise. Then you can help the customer achieve a more successful implementation that delivers optimal value for both sides.

Customers don't always understand the importance of establishing their own credibility with vendors. They neglect it at their peril. Customers who make asinine requests or can't tell a feature from a bug reveal their lack of technical knowledge and put themselves at the vendor's mercy. A customer who pushes unreasonable terms will lose the vendor's respect and make every subsequent interaction less effective: Calls are returned more slowly, requests are taken less seriously, and going the extra mile is out of the question.

To be taken seriously, customers have to stay current with markets and trends, understand the vendor's business model (as well as its technologies and solutions), and demonstrate a consistent focus on deliverables. Senior customer personnel—typically shielded from direct vendor conversations by their staff—should know when to step in to prevent internal agendas from slowing effective and objective decisionmaking. By the same token, it's incumbent on vendors to pay attention to the dynamics of the rooms they're meeting in: Who reports to whom? Where does the real decisionmaking authority reside? What internal politics are at play?

CTOs Must Begin Decisively

To enterprise IT professionals, a vendor can seem like a single entity, a black box from which a solution emerges. It's only when they move to the vendor side that the many moving parts throughout the organization come into view: marketing, sales, engineering, and client services. An incoming technology executive must learn to influence each of these groups effectively while keeping them working together to translate customer needs into solutions. This is never an easy process, least of all at the beginning. It's essential to be adaptable and to learn on the fly without losing focus on high-level goals.

At the CTO level, one of the greatest challenges is to make a strong, decisive start while you're still learning the position, especially if you're new to the organization. From the earliest days, you need to start drilling into the organization to find and build trust with the people who really matter: the ones driving innovation and delivering results at every level. Reach out to them, build ongoing relationships, and they'll keep you smart in return. Outside the company, you need to understand the sentiment in the marketplace about your company, products, and news, as well as your own performance. To deal effectively with the media, you need to project confidence in your vision without getting bogged down in technical details.

Social media is a key tool for outreach and gaining outside perspectives that keep you honest and informed. Build relationships with the social media leaders in your space, go to each other's events, be open about blogging and tweeting, and participate fully in your technology community. It's natural to struggle with how much to reveal. Still, the more you give away, the more trust and influence you gain in return—and you don't learn anything by preaching the company line. True two-way communication keeps you sharp.

How Do You See Your Own Credibility?

Even the most talented incoming CTO quickly realizes that his or her grandest ambitions won't come to pass right away, if at all. The need to come up to speed on the organization's inner workings makes it easy to lose focus. To stay on track, think of your legacy in the near term: If you were going to leave in three years, what are the three things you would want to have accomplished by then? Make clear priorities, crystallize your plans, and build support around them. If your near-term legacy is in good shape, your long-term legacy will take care of itself.

Whether on the vendor side or the customer side, an executive's legacy should extend beyond individual initiatives and accomplishments. While you're thinking about strategies and plans, make sure you're also paying attention to the kind of leader you want to be. In a sense, this means maintaining your own credibility within yourself: Are you staying true to your sense of the right way to live your life in your job?

For my part, satisfaction at the successes we've achieved during my time at Citrix has been complemented by the opportunity to enact a management philosophy based on honesty, openness, and a true spirit of meritocracy. The most successful teams encourage open dissent and vigorous debate, then close ranks and move forward once a decision has been made. Passionate discourse emboldens people to think creatively and bring new ideas onto the table while making their work more meaningful.

The best managers are not frightened of losing their jobs. All too often, "train your own replacement" is just lip service. Put into practice, it makes the entire organization stronger by inspiring people to become more than they are. At the same time, while executive leadership always involves a certain amount of conflict, debate, lobbying, and compromise, I've always been willing to walk away rather than go against my convictions. When you feel certain that you're doing the right things with the right intentions—even when your efforts don't always succeed—the ability to trust yourself can make every part of your job more rewarding.

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