by Minda Zetlin

5 ways to build trust between business and IT

Feb 24, 2021
Business IT AlignmentIT Leadership

Most organizational dysfunction is the symptom of a greater problem: Business-IT trust has broken down. Here’s how smart CIOs repair those rifts — or foster trust from the get-go.

You’re not invited to strategic meetings. When you make recommendations, business leaders seek second opinions from consultants, their peers, or the latest magazine article. Users insist they have to have their chosen brand of software because they’re sure your standardized apps won’t meet their needs. Meanwhile, your IT team complains about the requests they get, and wants your permission to refuse or ignore them.

It’s not a pretty picture, but all these familiar frustrations are symptoms of the same problem: Trust has broken down between IT and the business.

“The moment you have a situation where there is pressure, that’s when trust issues can start,” says Krishna Tammana, CTO of data integration company Talend. “Why does this happen? It is the amount of demand on IT, and the budgets of IT are never correlated. I’ve never seen a situation where IT had enough budget for the number of things the business wanted.”

Krishna Tammana, CTO, Talend Talend

Krishna Tammana, CTO, Talend

At the same time, some IT departments’ tendency to keep failures and uncertainties to themselves can exacerbate the problem. “The root cause for trust is transparency,” Tammana says. “When business leaders see that IT is trying to help the business, and is willing to acknowledge its own strengths and weaknesses, the relationship is very trusting and very solid. The moment any of these falls off, everything becomes very tense.”

Maybe you’re seeing symptoms of business-IT mistrust in your own organization, or maybe you just want to make sure you never do. Either way, how can you increase trust across the business-IT divide? Here’s what smart CIOs recommend.

1. Tell it like it is — even to yourself

“I think people in IT need to have better candor,” says John Roman, Jr., CIO at CPA and consulting firm The Bonadio Group in Rochester, N.Y. “We’re in the service business. The customer comes first. We want everybody to like us. I think in our motivation to please, we sometimes overcommit and under-deliver. If you start to do that consistently, you break the trust.”

John Roman, Jr., CIO, The Bonadio Group The Bonadio Group

John Roman, Jr., CIO, The Bonadio Group

Roman says he himself has made the mistake of underestimating how long a job would take. “I think sometimes there’s a tendency to provide a response to a question when you don’t have all the information. I’ve learned that before I say, ‘Yes, we can do it by such-and-such a time,’ I’ll go to the person on my team and say, ‘We need to get this done by tomorrow. Can it be done?’”

IT leaders should never be afraid to ask for help, or to admit that they don’t know something, adds Don Logan, CIO at accounting and consulting firm Friedman LLP in New York City.

“When you get to a level of executive management where you’re responsible for many people, at that point you may have 15 or 20 years behind you,” he says. “You kind of build an ego. You think you’re invincible, you’re the expert, and you know everything. And you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Logan, who says he’s made this mistake himself, calls it “the ego trap.” And, he says, “It hurts you and ultimately the business you’re working for and the people you’re working with.”

Don Logan, CIO, Friedman LLP Friedman LLP

Don Logan, CIO, Friedman LLP

2. Make it all about them

Marketing experts say that “you” is one of the most powerful words in the English language for engaging people’s interest because it puts the focus on them. The same goes for creating trust.

“IT professionals who have grown up in the technology trade have a lot of deep knowledge about technology, which they think about all the time,” says Richard Hunter, a vice president at Gartner. “But executives are thinking about outcomes. To an executive, an initiative supported by IT is a line item on a bill of materials for an outcome. And it’s the outcome they care about, not the bill of materials.”

Given that reality, he says, “The single thing that IT professionals can do to build trust is to make it all about [the business leaders]. All about the people who are using the stuff, as opposed to the people who are developing it, creating, or operating it. Make it about the goals and strategies of the organization, frame every comment in those terms. Make it clear that you understand what kinds of outcomes matter and how those outcomes are going right now.”

When you’re talking to an executive, you should know what the three most important metrics are to that person, both operational metrics and financial metrics, he adds. “What’s the status of those metrics right now? What’s the trendline on them? And what can I do to make those numbers pop in the right direction?”

3. Get all of IT involved

Building trust between yourself and your fellow top executives is important but it’s not enough, experts say. You also need to make sure that all of IT is working to increase trust in interactions with business users.

Richard Hunter, vice president, Gartner Gartner

Richard Hunter, vice president, Gartner

“I don’t think you can just look at the CIO and say we’ve solved the problem,” Tammana says. “It’s not sufficient to just stop at the CIO level if everybody below you is talking technology or, more importantly, understanding technology and not understanding the business. So I think there is more work to do to get the layers below the CIO to understand and deal with the business.”

Why is this important? “The fact is, even though leaders sit in conference rooms and talk about big things, it’s the people doing the work who are making decisions about how to structure the project and how to articulate the value of it,” he says. “Everybody makes decisions, it’s not just the CIO.” If business users explain the problem they are trying to solve and IT professionals understand the business’s needs and priorities, they have the opportunity to explore other, possibly better solutions, he says.

With that in mind, he says, when CIOs look at a list of current projects, their team members should be able to say for each project what problem it will solve and why it’s a higher or lower priority than other projects. When you ask those questions, he says, “It forces the team to come up with that information. You do that one or two times and they will learn, ‘Oh, I better ask my business counterpart why that is being requested and what problem it’s solving.’ And that slowly changes the culture within the organization.”

To jump-start the process of building trust between IT employees and their business contacts, Tammana says he “cross-pollinates” his team by having team members work on the business side for a time. “Depending on the job, I’ve had them actually go and function as a business user,” he says. “They learn what it’s like and what the problems are, and they come back with a tremendous amount of empathy for what the business is dealing with.”

4. Never complain about the business to your team

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of disparaging or expressing distrust of the leader of another department in front of your IT employees, says Sam Hilgendorf, CIO of Fox World Travel in Oshkosh, Wisc. He says he did that as a VP in an organization where he once worked. He calls it “the worst mistake I ever made.”

Sam Hilgendorf, CIO, Fox World Travel Fox World Travel

Sam Hilgendorf, CIO, Fox World Travel

At that company, griping about other parts of the organization was the norm, he says. “There was friction between myself and sales, and between myself and other departments,” he recalls. “But when I found myself complaining in front of my direct reports about another department, basically I was giving them permission not to fix the problem. They could say, ‘I talked to my boss, my boss is supporting me, so I’m right.’”

At Fox, he says, the culture is very different. The company’s leaders, down to the VP level, have had extensive executive coaching and done trust-building work, and Hilgendorf would never consider complaining about one of his peers to his team. When his team members complain about their business contacts, he pushes back. “I say, ‘You got to look at this from their perspective. What do you understand that you don’t feel they understand? Have you asked? Have you tried to understand where they’re coming from and why? Or have you just made assumptions?’”

If you don’t ask these sorts of questions, you’re giving your employees permission not to have the difficult conversations they need to have, he explains.

These days, Hilgendorf  hears a lot fewer of these gripes. “They know that if they complain up, they’re just going to get guided in the direction to go have a conversation again,” he says. “Try to understand where that person is coming from and why, and then solve the problem. So they don’t even ask at this point because they know what the response is going to be. And that has made all the difference.”

The high degree of trust between business and IT leaders at Fox turned out to be a huge asset in 2020. As the pandemic decimated the travel industry, particularly business travel, the company saw its revenues plummet by 90% in March 2020 and they have not recovered since. Layoffs were the inevitable result.

Even so, Hilgendorf says, “With the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry, we’ve seen trust actually grow between technology and our business units. Crisis can have two different effects on a culture. It can either lead to fear and aggression as people try to one-up each other, or it can lead to a tighter bond that we’re in this together and we need to rely on each other even more than before.”

5. Keep asking why

“CIO’s have the unique opportunity to build great partnerships simply by bringing a sincere curiosity into any conversations with their peers,” Hilgendorf says. So when he’s working to build trust or solve a problem with his business counterparts, he says he sometimes feels like a two-year-old who keeps asking “why?” Initially, he says, “You’ll get a lot of ‘That’s the way it’s always been,’ or ‘That’s what we know.’” When that happens, he keeps digging.

“I’ll challenge back with, ‘Could this be an alternative?’ And just throw a random goofy idea out there. Often, that will get us to the reasons the random goofy idea won’t work, which will get to another level of why,” Hilgendorf says.

The biggest obstacle to trust between business and IT are the stereotypes each group has about the other, he adds. “There are just these assumptions. There’s the assumption from IT that nobody in the business freaking gets it. And there’s the assumption from the business that IT has no idea how the business actually works. So it’s crossing that chasm where they can each recognize that, ‘All right, they have a lot more to say and a lot more intelligence than we give them credit for.’”

If you can reach that point, he says, “That’s a place to build trust, right there.”