Line of Business Leaders and the CIO - 5 Tips for a Successful Relationship

As you read this, you have probably just finished jettisoning, or at the very least ignoring the last of the New Year’s resolutions you have made (or your partner made for you).  Before you fall back into familiar patterns, let me discuss one major resolution you should strive to keep this year.

If you haven’t got a seat at the senior leadership table, let’s make this year the one in which you move closer to getting invited.  If you are already on the senior leadership team, let’s work on strengthening your position and not become marginalized.  (It can happen.  In the Canadian College system, several CIOs have recently lost their direct report to the President and now report to the Administrative head.)

Working well with your colleagues (or soon to be colleagues) at the leadership table is key to your success.  Each of them represent a key line of business or operational function within your organization and you are in a unique role to represent the one line that touches each of their areas in a way that will help them achieve their goals.  (I know that Finance also touches each area, but it is more of a cost control and management function than an enable and empower ability that IT can bring.)

Now here comes the touchy/feely part… you have to build relationships with your colleagues.  I know that for some of you, you would rather lick the paint off the wall than divert from your task-oriented, introverted tribe of technical types rather than schmooze with the head of marketing or HR.

This my friends is the price of admission, and not such a bad thing.  After all, I'm not suggesting you become best friends or invite them on a vacation.  I'm suggesting that CIOs need to work on developing professional relationships with their colleagues on the leadership team.

Here are five tips for doing so:

1. First (and perhaps the toughest), check your ego at the door.   The IT department is not a fortress or a bastion of rules to protect your users from themselves… your team’s role is to make the people in your organization more successful at what they are supposed to be doing, or finding innovative ways to differentiate your organization in its market.  Simple.

Get rid of the gatekeeper mentality on your team.  Look at your IT department through the lens of the best customer service organization you can think of.  What makes them #1 in your mind?  What types of things do they do that gives them so much credibility in your eyes and causes you to recommend them to anyone who will listen?

Could you say the same about your organization?  If your organization could choose to use your services voluntarily, would they do so or go somewhere else?  (Hint:  BYOD is a harbinger of customer selected IT services).

2. Speak their language.
One of Stephen Covey’s highly effective habits was “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  This is wise advice for the CIO.

People like geeks on TV, but don’t want to work with them.

Your colleagues don’t care about feeds and speeds, Sarbanes Oxley, bandwidth, BYOD, Big Data, and a host of other things that consume YOUR time.  They care about schedules, delivery times, sales cycles, customer satisfaction, capacity issues, supply chains and a host of things that consume THEIR time.

Take the time to learn their challenges, issues, bottlenecks, aspirations.  Find out how they measure success.
Then, in their language, metaphors or vernacular, be able to explain to them, in a way they will understand, how your team can help them achieve that.

3. Get rid of the wet blanket. Stop saying no.
Historically, IT has gained a reputation as a gatekeeper of ideas and innovation.  We have become skilled at providing a dozen reasons why something won’t work (more often than not for very legitimate reasons).
If you keep saying no, then people will quit coming to you.

So the better way is to stop saying no, but rather put a price tag on ‘yes’.  If it’s a capacity issue, or a budget issue, then ask which projects could come off the list for this brilliant project to be added.  You get the picture.

If the project advances the institutional objectives and/or creates differentiation for your organization, then find a way to make it work, but do so using solid project management to ensure you don’t compromise the areas where you have fiduciary responsibility (information security and privacy, compliance, operational budget etc.)

The second part of this is to get out of the way.  Stop making it necessary for their departments to have to come to IT to get access to data, generate reports, and implement workflows.  Implement systems that moves the management complexity to the network layer, and empower their departments.  Send the message that you trust them with their own data… while invisibly your network management ensures that only the right people have access and your organization is protected.

4. Deliver.
The best way to build trust with your colleagues is to deliver.  If you say something will be delivered by a certain date, then move heaven and hell to do so.

If your IT projects are not coming in on time, on budget and delivering measurable results, you have a lot of work to do.  Anything less destroys your credibility at the leadership table.

5. Don’t waste time at “the table”.
The worst thing a CIO can do when invited to the table is to say nothing.  The second worst thing is to say too much, or talk about things that aren't relevant.

If you are privileged enough to have a seat, then use it well.

You should have a strong working knowledge of your organization’s goals and objectives, as well as well-developed ideas of the role technology can play in achieving them.

You should come to the meetings prepared, with fresh ideas, and a willingness to (respectfully) challenge ideas that do not align with organizational objectives.

Don’t be stuck in a maintenance mindset.  Become known as the person on the team that helps others achieve.

So in the end, it isn’t about your colleagues changing their errant ways and welcoming you to the table.  There is a tremendous amount of responsibility for a leadership team to create an organization that delivers in their sector.  If you want a seat at the table, you’ll find the responsibility for many of the changes falls soundly in the lap of the person you see in the mirror.

There are numerous resources to help you in this growth.  My personal favourite for a starting point is Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Happy New Year!

Note: This post will also appear in UBM Channel's Monthly CIO Leadership Newsletter.  Check out a previous edition here where you can register to receive future issues.


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