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PHOTO: Charles Deluvio

What are the key characteristics of an effective CIO? At the top of my list would be partnership builder. The fact is CIOs and their businesses succeed through people — whether that be their team, internal or external stakeholders, or external delivery partnerships. In an increasingly digital world, being skilled at building partnerships defines the successful CIO.

What Partnerships Matter the Most to CIOs?

CIOs must be equally good at internal and external partnerships. Martin Davis agreed, but added, “the most important is always going to be the senior leadership team within your own company. Without their support you might as well pack up and go home! As a part of this, it’s always important to cultivate some tame customers that CIOs can use as a learning experience and sounding board.” For some verticals, defining who internal and external partners are may be a challenge, a point CIO Melissa Woo made in the context of higher education. 

Looking more broadly across the IT organization, CIO David Seidl said, “partnerships depend on your role, and what your organization needs you to do. We should be deeply involved in the success of our internal partners, but external relationships can make or break an organization as well. Understanding where you need to land is critical to doing our jobs. I've seen great CIOs who were asked to build external partnerships and had problems because their team couldn't or wouldn't maintain the internal while their leader was focused outside. I've seen strong internals who missed out on strategic partnerships. It's tough.”

Viewing partnerships as only internal or external may be limiting for some. As former CIO Tim McBreen said, “I have added a level called external peers. These are other corporations or educational CIOs. We meet regularly along with calls on various technology or process items. This has helped me throughout my career.” CIO Sharon Pitt summed it up by saying, “anyone that moves progress forward lays a foundation and establishes a trust relationship. This is critical to addressing challenges and sensing opportunities. This absolutely means internal and external stakeholders and sometimes means depending on your or your organization's current moment in time.”

Related Article: CIOs Step Up to the Role of Change Leader

What Issues Are the Biggest Limiters on Effective Partnerships?

The resounding response to this question was trust. According to CIO Carrie Shumaker, “cultural and political challenges, often trust is the root issue but not always. And when trust is the issue it’s not always trust with IT. It can be other stakeholders not trusting each other. Clearly, you absolutely can’t succeed as a CIO without internal connections.”

For Davis and McBreen everything comes down to trust. "I have dismantled or refused to participate with anybody who has proven not to be trustworthy. I can still service them if internal, but I won't truly partner until I trust them. The same is true externally. You only get one chance to lie to me. Partnerships have to be a win for both sides regardless of internal or external,” said McBreen. Davis asked the question: “if there is no trust or integrity, are you truly partnering or only interested in their own agenda?”

For Pitt, “trust, historical baggage, perceived control/ownership, actual alignment, bad behavior are all obstacles to partnership.” And clearly Seidl is right when he said, “I owe more time to my internals than to my externals, day in and day out. If I have a really strong team behind me than I can flex that more easily so I can act on behalf of my organization to build those ties. Trust. engagement. and investment are all are needed.”

Developing a Common Language With Partners

For a long time CIOs have stressed the need for IT to speak the language of the business. So it comes as no surprise that language matters to CIOs. Pitt said, “it's important for stakeholders engaged in specific projects and operations to have a common language around mutual efforts. More important, though, is inclusive language — or, if you will, language that does not act as a barrier to building relationships.”

Davis added, “it’s essential to be talking the same language to avoid misunderstanding. Irrespective of business size, IT and the CIO especially must talk the language of business. I have worked in companies of all sizes. The best CIO are the ones that get this.” Seidl agreed, stating, “it starts by caring enough to meet your partners where they are. Clearly, sharing some vocabulary and meaning makes it easier, and is a bridge builder.” The subtlety and nuances of meaning are key here. Seidl shared a story which put this in stark relief: “I saw an organization buy and implement entirely the wrong big dollar software package because both sides meant their meaning and didn't know they were different.” Interesting the word communicate comes from the Latin word communicare which means to make common. Clearly, this should be the goal of a partnership.

Guidance for New CIOs on Building Effective Partnerships

So how can CIOs get started building partnerships? A few tips:

  • Build a list of partners. Ask people who you're missing.
  • Ask as well key constituents who they think your key partners are.
  • Have your idea of your partnership goals, strategy and plan.
  • Build a relationship approach for each partner.
  • Remember you don't have to be directly involved to get value out of every relationship. Assign key staff to help.
  • Test trust aspect early in the process.

Seidl's advice was the following: “CIOs need to be intentional. They need to look at their strategy and figure out what partnerships they need. As well, they need at times to step back, look at it all.” Davis added, “build relationships, don’t just expect things to happen, build trust, demonstrate you are there to help. Nurture your relationships — don’t let it fizzle and die through neglect.”

Parting Words

In the digital era, transformation is built on internal and external partner partnerships. CIOs that are successful change masters are also successful partnership builders. Without this, how can CIOs achieve the internal or external validation to be successful as a change instigator or business change co-creator. From beginning to end CIOs require partnerships.