There’s no shortage of challenges CIOs face each day, from meeting customer and employee expectations, to mitigating complex security risks, to evaluating and integrating new tech solutions, to managing their own people and ensuring resilient business systems.
Good guidance and experienced counsel has always been vital to IT leaders — even more so in a fast-moving, often uncertain business environment. According to the 2021 State of the CIO survey, 88% of IT leaders agree that the CIO increasingly needs to rely on trusted advisors to help navigate new technologies, processes, and methodologies.
“Relationships with trusted advisors are critical, as no one has all the answers,” says David Levine, vice president of corporate and information security and CSO at Ricoh USA. “Whether you are looking for recommendations on products, metrics, approaches, technologies, or seeking validation — or even invalidation — leveraging trusted advisors and good relationships can be invaluable.”
CIOs look to a number of trusted advisors — strategic vendors, consultants, former colleagues, CIO peers — for help. Sometimes, they serve as a sounding board or empathetic listener. Ideally, they enable IT leaders to consider new points of view. “My relationships with my trusted advisors are very important,” says Michael Ringman, CIO of TELUS International. “I look to these people to challenge my thoughts and bring new, different perspectives to the table. Over the years, I have learned so much from these individuals and these diverse points of view are the catalyst to growth and driving innovation.”
As most IT leaders will tell you, they lean most on trusted advisors in times of crisis. “In fight or flight situations, when you’re up against the wall and only have time to make one phone call,” says Todd Bandauski, CIO at Crew Carwash, “you need to know who you can count on.”
IT leaders can’t wait until they’re facing an emergency to find out who’ll have their backs. CIOs must establish and nurture these relationships over time — and leverage them thoughtfully.
“Creating a relationship with an advisor you trust doesn’t happen overnight. People don’t automatically trust you because you have the title of CIO,” says Jay Upchurch, CIO at SAS. “You’ve got to be willing to invest the time — listen, learn, and be empathetic. As with any relationship you value, it requires ongoing nurturing and consistent decision-making. And it’s 100% worth it.”
Following are some tips from CIOs on how they identify, grow, and make best use of their trusted advisor networks.
Become a joiner
For those CIOs seeking to establish a network of trusted advisors, Ricoh’s Levine advises attending and participating in peer groups.
“My peers are some of my closest trusted advisors. I belong to a large number of peer groups and organizations and actively participate in roundtable and webinar discussions,” Levine says. “Peer recommendations are great. I am one hundred times more likely to take solution recommendation from a peer than just about any other source. Sometimes just validating an approach, methodology, or maturity level can be a huge benefit.”
Levine recently leaned on his trusted advisors when reviewing a suite of products his internal team was anxious to install. “By reaching out to trusted advisors for their opinions and advice, I was able to validate my concerns,” Levine says. “In working with them, we identified an alternative approach that allowed us to move forward with the project.”
Pay attention to who shows up when the chips are down
Establishing a network is one thing; knowing who you can to turn to in a pinch is crucial, says Crew Carwash’s Bandauski.
“I turn to advisors that I can rely upon,” he says. “Partners who will not only be there when everything is going great, Monday through Friday, but more importantly in an emergency, where every minute counts.”
Here, it’s critical to distinguish between vendors and partners. “A true partner will provide trusted advice whether it’s in their best interest or not, for the greater benefit of both parties and forging a long-standing relationship,” says Ricoh USA’s Levine. “A vendor will frequently only be looking out for what is in their best interest.”
Seek out truth tellers
Ringman of Telus International isn’t looking for “yes” people to become his trusted advisors. In fact, they’re more likely to tell him “no.”
“I rely on these individuals because they have a view of my blind spots, give me constructive feedback, and together we can create robust and effective solutions that drive impactful change and progress for our teams,” Ringman says.
Brittany Hamm, global director of managed services at Kalypso, also looks for those who are comfortable being honest. “Background and experience level vary — from technical to functional, junior to senior,” Hamm says of her trusted advisors. “But those that give, and welcome, candid feedback are the common thread.”
That’s not to say vendors can’t be impactful. For many CIOs, trusted —and truthful — vendor advisors helped save the day dealing with the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain. “We will get a reliable answer, along with suggested alternatives, and with that knowledge we can act accordingly,” says Bandauski of his experience reaching out to trusted vendors during the pandemic. “When stock counts are either bottlenecked or depleted and you need to make alternative plans, you need to be working with the facts.”
In most cases, Crew Carwash’s trusted vendors have gone above and beyond what market conditions might reward to help the IT organization avert crises, Bandauski says.
Trust must be built over time — particularly with vendors. “It’s often the little things that add up to create a value-added relationship,” Bandauski says. “I like to start small, watching how a new partner delivers on their commitments. In reality, it’s these ‘tells’ that indicate how well a partner is going to perform long-term.”
It doesn’t happen overnight, notes J.P. van Loggerenberg, CTO at SYSPRO. “The depth of a relationship evolves, starting with service offering before transitioning to needs-based, relationship-based, and finally trust-based,” van Loggerenberg says. “To build that relationship, your advisor needs to show credibility, consistency, competence, and compatibility.”
Take the initiative
It’s important to proactively carve out time to connect and share with a trusted advisor. “Those trusted advisors that I connect with at a regular cadence are the most helpful,” says Hamm of Kalypso. “Not just having an open door, but actively staying connected helps the most. While sometimes I wait to check in with a trusted advisor until a specific issue arises, afterwards I’ve always wished I engaged them sooner.”
IT leaders who want to build these relationships don’t wait for their would-be partners to present them with wisdom; they come with a perspective and questions. “A little preparation makes it worth it for both of you,” says Hamm, who checks in with her trusted advisors to make sure she’s on the right track.
Use them early — and often
While trusted advisors can be helpful during crises, they are even more valuable when they can help you avoid one. “A trusted advisor can save countless hours of research and work from CIO teams who might arrive at a conclusion that, as well intended as it may be, is not based on multiple scenarios and/or has not been ‘trialed and errored’ in a meaningful way,” says Ron White, CIO of Avanade. “A trusted advisor can provide a shortcut to perspectives that can streamline decision-making and add legitimacy to strategic positioning.”
Shivkumar Gopalan, CIO at Unit4, calls on trusted advisors for insight into what’s happening outside of his organization. “We find their inputs most useful when we are doing something new — for example, introducing a new business process, technology, or supplier,” says Gopalan, who turned to advisors when deciding to insource IT operations during the initial pandemic lockdown. “We were not confident about that decision,” he says. “Conversations with our partners gave us insight and knowledge into what we needed to strengthen our in-house IT operations.
To thrive, trusted advisor relationships can’t be all take and no give, says Ringman of TELUS International. “These relationships need to be nurtured; you must make time for them and they need to be a two-way street,” he says. “I have found great relationships with trusted advisors on my team, across my organization, as well as with peers in the industry. We have been able to help each other, share best practices and celebrate each other’s IT success stories.”
To make the most of vendor advisors, it’s important to provide clarity, CIOs say.
“Businesses need to be transparent about projected timelines and ensure they manage expectations to achieve the delicate balance between resources, capacity, and funding,” says van Loggerenberg of SYSPRO. “CIOs need to ensure that they always understand what their trusted advisors are capable of, what they can deliver, and how you leverage their abilities to obtain the maximum value.”
Bandauski of Crew Carwash says his partners thank him for his candor. “The majority of the time people are truly looking to help. Ambiguous answers lead to wasted time, confusion, and ultimately frustration for both parties,” he says. “If something is not a fit, say so. If you don’t understand, ask questions. I’ve found this helps to foster a relationship faster than anything else.”
And don’t be afraid of potential conflict. “Take the time to have the challenging conversations so you and your peers and your teams are in alignment,” says Penelope Prett, CIO of Accenture. “Those are always the toughest discussions to have, but sometimes the most worthwhile.