Relationships: CIOs Are People Who Need People

Opportunities for relationship building occur every moment of a CIO’s workday. Whether it’s attending meetings, dropping by a peer’s office or spending a few days at an offsite, a CIO is constantly in the process of forging ties. Solid relationships are the foundation for nearly every professional ambition a CIO could have and they shape the enterprise’s perception of its CIO. CIO Executive Council members discussed relationship best practices at their recent General Assembly in Carlsbad, Calif., and offer these tips for developing, maintaining and leveraging strong relationships.

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1. Identify Your Targets

The most important part of the relationship-building process is identifying whom to cultivate. “It was pretty easy for me to find my initial targets—the seven senior executives that along with me report in to the CEO,” says Jeanine Wasielewski, CIO at Coors Brewing Company. When she was promoted to the CIO role in 2006, Wasielewksi was asked to leverage her IT expertise to move the business strategy forward. The other members of the CEO team, including the CMO, chief supply chain officer, chief revenue officer and the CFO, are the architects of the business strategy and therefore made ideal relationship targets.

Linda Gilpin, associate CIO for Enterprise Services at the Internal Revenue Service, looked to her peers for advice. “Since I came to the IRS externally, I needed to build strong relationships quickly,” Gilpin says. “I talked to everyone I could, got their suggestions and set up meetings with a multitude of stakeholders.”

Tom Langston, CIO at $2.1 billion SSM Health Care System, keeps his eye on new hire announcements. “Whenever I see a new president or VP arrive, I make it a point to introduce myself and emphasize the value of his/her role as an IT customer,” says Langston.

2. Meet and Greet

The first meeting is just the start of the relationship; what happens next is about building credibility and trust. Just as doctors make rounds to gather more information, Langston visits with executives, end users and IT support staff in hospitals across the system. “I meet with the CEO or CFO and talk to them about what we can be doing in IT to make them more successful,” says Langston. Langston says the value of face time cannot be overstated.

Several Council members, including Ron Kifer of Applied Materials, Vicki Petit of KI and Barbra Cooper of Toyota Motor Sales, say they have created formal documents to track their relationships (see “First Impressions”). Michael Whitmer, CIO for the $1.4 billion staffing company Hudson North America, lists the names of key stakeholders, their role, communication preference (e-mail, phone, in person) and specific topics to discuss with them (see “Relationship Template”). “My favorite question to ask is, ‘In order for me to be successful, what can I do to make you successful?’” says Whitmer. After meeting with each person, Whitmer takes what he’s learned and builds a plan to help improve their lines of business.

Relationship Template

Michael Whitmer, CIO of Hudson North America, created a document when he came to the company that listed key stakeholders, their roles and specific questions to ask each. For example:

  • Who are the key people in your organization with whom I should develop a relationship?

  • What improvement can IT make to support your organization better?

  • Who in IT currently provides you with excellent service?

  • Are there any projects IT can support in order for your organization to run more effectively?

Whitmer formulated a plan and now holds regular follow-up discussions to build solid relationships.

Companywide CIO Blog

Whitmer is turning his Web-based IT team newsletter into a CIO blog. The newsletter, published monthly, highlights both professional and personal information to build and maintain strong relationships among team members. The blog will contain similar topics but Whitmer will be able to update it more frequently and show a different side of himself. He also plans to highlight individual team members’ successes. “Anytime you can communicate with the business or your own teammates on a more personal level, it builds and strengthens relationships,” says Whitmer.

3. Using Personality to Your Advantage

Relationship building is easier if you can leverage an outgoing nature, positive energy and charisma. “The beer business is a relationship business,” says Wasielewski. Because of this, relationship building tends to be a core skill for Coors leaders. Gilpin agrees that many executives say relationship building comes naturally but cautions that leaders must practice. “You can’t just rely on your natural talent or tendencies. It comes down to how you work with people on a daily basis, including communication, collaboration, taking criticism and being flexible,” says Gilpin.

If you don’t count relationship building among your core skills, coaching can help. “Right now,” says Whitmer, “I’m coaching one of my more introverted team members to do things as simple as meeting with someone face-to-face rather than sending an e-mail.”

4. Bake It into the Job

Gilpin likens the relationship process to finding time to exercise; she knows it’s valuable but difficult to do. Gilpin recognizes the need to have a weekly meeting with her peer associate CIO of application development. She also has a brief weekly meeting with all associate CIO peers to touch base. “By having a set time each week reserved, the relationship is constantly being managed,” says Gilpin. At the IRS, “it’s become part of the normal workday to communicate with different stakeholders.”

Peer Counsel

Q: How do you deal with a situation in which a relationship isn’t working out?

A: One difficult relationship that I had to work through was with a business stakeholder on a particular project. The problem was a severe clash in personalities, specifically in terms of how we each approached our work and our individual expectations. Despite my best efforts, it proved impossible to find common ground. However, I still needed to work with this person to make the project a success.

It would have taken too much time to get a strong, working relationship going, so my solution was to leverage another colleague who already had a solid relationship with the stakeholder. I brought this colleague into our project update meetings and channeled communication about what needed to get done through this mutual contact. My counterpart was amenable to handling our relationship in this capacity and we reached our ultimate goal: a successful project that furthered the business strategy.

Jeanine Wasielewski, CIO, Coors Brewing Co.

In the end, strong relationships provide benefits not only to the enterprise but to the executive’s career. It’s much easier to survive a mistake if the CIO has a store of goodwill and credibility. Two relationships Langston nurtured with the COO and SVP of HR while he worked in the employee benefits area were integral to his getting placed in the CIO role. The two executives strongly recommended Langston, even though he had no IT experience. “You may not realize it at the time,” says Langston, “but the relationships you are establishing today will undoubtedly help you in your career down the road.”

Carrie Mathews is senior manager, member services, for the CIO Executive Council.

This story, "Relationships: CIOs Are People Who Need People" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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