Mary K. Pratt
Contributing writer

12 ways IT leaders can build business buy-in

Apr 03, 202310 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT Leadership

Business-IT alignment and collaboration have never been more important. The following dozen best practices can help CIOs earn (and keep) business colleague support.

Group Of Businesspeople Meeting for collaboration In Modern Boardroom
Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

CEOs continue to see the need for more collaboration between IT and the business units, so much so that in a recent survey CEOs listed that as the No. 1 objective for the IT function.

The State of the CIO Study 2023 from Foundry, an IDG company and publisher of, found strengthening IT and business collaboration to be CEO’s top priority for IT this year, ahead of upgrading IT and data security to reduce corporate risk (No. 2 on the list) and improving the customer experience (No. 3).

Experts say such findings aren’t surprising, as collaboration and alignment between IT and the rest of the business are key for picking the right priorities, driving the right investments, and bringing transformative programs to fruition.

State of the CIO 2023: CEO's top priorities for IT in 2023

Foundry /

Yet they also say CIOs often struggle to get and keep business buy-in, particularly for bigger initiatives that require change or have hurdles to overcome — as most innovative endeavors inevitably do. Those can still be hard to sell, even today, when digital transformation dominates. And enthusiasm for those projects can be difficult to sustain, particularly when teams hit those obstacles.

There are strategies that can help here. Executive advisors and veteran CIOs offer 12 ways to win and maintain business buy-in — even when the going gets tough.

1. Be ‘technology ready’

To win and keep business buy-in, IT has to do more than bring its A-game. It has to deliver for the business “faster, better, and cheaper than anyone else,” says Mohamed Kande, vice chair at professional services firm PWC, where he is US Consulting Solutions co-leader and Global Advisory leader.

That takes attention to all the moving parts within the IT function. CIOs need the right people, the right teams, and the right technology so they’re able to focus on enterprise strategy, knowing they have an engine ready to support it, Kande says.

“Otherwise, they’re still trying to take care of the basics and they aren’t in a place where they’re able to think about the future,” he says.

To that point, he says CIOs may not need to move everything to the cloud but they should “move what they must” so they’re not weighed down fixing fundamentals and instead can focus on the corporate strategy questions.

“Being technology ready means that the technology the company is using is helping them run the company in an optimal way with flexibility and security,” Kande says. “It allows the CIO to have a different conversation; it allows the shift to business outcomes.”

2. Speak to specific business outcomes

Modern CIOs know to speak in business terms and leave the tech jargon behind. But those who are truly intertwined with their business unit colleagues are speaking not only about strategy but key components of it: growth, revenue, profit margin, and so on.

As Kande explains, “The business is asking for technology to deliver business outcomes: Are we selling more products and services? Do we have [for example] more visibility into manufacturing or supplies?”

Christine Dunbar, founder and CEO of ROC Implementation & Management Group, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based business strategy, cybersecurity, and IT consulting company says CIOs who do that best know the metrics the business wants to see and hear in such cases.

CIOs who speak in the metrics that quantify those business outcomes — whether that’s figures on a new digital product’s ability to boosts sales or calculations around a new platform’s customer retention capabilities — are the ones whose plans are continuously endorsed by their business unit colleagues, Dunbar says.

3. Be fluent in the language of the business units

Speaking of the language used, Brian Hoyt, former CIO of Unity Technologies and AppDynamics and now COO at Parkway Venture Capital, says business unit and IT teams tend to develop more enduring partnerships when they’re able to talk about work on the same level.

“It’s absolutely critical to have IT resources highly fluent in the goals of the business units they cover,” Hoyt explains. “I always viewed it as a success when my IT team members were invited to participate in [quarterly business reviews] or strategic planning exercises with the business unit they service. We measured ourselves by how much engagement we are getting.”

4. Be in ‘relationship mode’

In a summer 2022 Harvard Business Review article titled “The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most,” the authors presented findings from their research on this topic, writing that while management of financial and operational resources remains a critical skill, companies “instead prioritize one qualification above all others: strong social skills.”

RJ Juliano, senior vice president and chief information & marketing officer at Parkway, has seen the importance of those skills in winning allies among his executive colleagues. As such, he works to build connections with his peers before he needs to seek their support. That way, when he does need that buy-in, he says there’s a well of trust that he can draw on “because that mutual understanding has already been established.”

“Think about your vendor relationships. Do the same [relationship building] with your peers. Find reasons to interact with them in nonstructured time, whether it’s lunch or it’s those times that aren’t strategic planning meetings. Don’t always be in a transactional mode; be in a relationship mode. That goes for the board, too,” he says.

5. Work out issues in advance

Another way to get and keep business buy-in, according to Juliano: Identify and work out issues ahead of time — especially with any skeptics.

“Make yourself go have those conversations one-on-one well in advance of a decision,” he says. Get feedback early. Check in and course correct before finalizing plans.

Juliano says it’s about recognizing with any initiative that the problems and pain points the business units face and IT’s problems “are the same problem.”

Juliano works by this approach, pointing to how he handled discussions about the current ongoing project to replace the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. In addition to conversations about business needs, he has talked with business unit leaders about the organizational maturity of all the teams and the teams’ readiness for upcoming changes before embarking on this project.

Through that advance work, Juliano and one of his peers were able to work together on some organizational issues that if left unaddressed could have limited the company’s ability to get full value out of the ERP replacement and, as a result, could have led to diminishing support for the initiative.

6. Make sure the CEO agrees

Buy-in starts at the top, so it’s essential to cultivate positivity there, too. “It’s really important to ensure that the CEO views the IT team as an equal stakeholder for successful business outcomes. Otherwise, the relationship with business unit heads will not last,” Hoyt says.

He adds: “A CIO’s responsibility is to ensure the CEO can easily articulate what projects are happening and why they are important to the overall strategy.”

7. Embrace the concept of shared pain

Another approach Juliano uses to ensure IT and business are in lockstep as they advance organizational objectives is to identify and highlight shared goals. For him, that means in part articulating IT’s piece of initiatives as well as demonstrating IT’s commitment to co-owning success — and, if things don’t go right, co-owning failure, too.

“Your IT deliverables should be 100% part of the business’ strategic goals,” he says. “But if you’re making plans and you’re not seeing that there’s a clear IT objective, then you’re reducing your chance of successes and I’d question why you’re not part of that execution. So get your name on those goals so you are seen as a co-deliverer. Make sure your name is primary or secondary owner.”

Juliano says that sends a good message to executive peers as well as the teams doing the work: “It’s saying, ‘I’m taking responsibility to say my resources and planning are behind this.’ It’s the shared pain, shared gain. If we succeed, we succeed together or if it’s not going well, we’re in it together.”

He continues: “IT can get disconnected from company goals but with this you can walk back into your team and say, ‘This is where we’re on the hook.’ And that improves your team’s chances of success, because it helps focus the team and they know they’re part of the strategy.”

8. Employ business relationship managers

Dunbar believes the business relationship manager is a crucial role for the IT team as business relationship managers help ensure IT knows and focuses on the initiatives that the business values and, thus, will support.

“Business relationship managers understand the business, the strategy, and what’s going on. They’re going to understand the nuances — that’s a key word — they understand the nuances of what the business wants and can communicate that to the IT team,” she says.

Paying attention to those nuances matter, Dunbar says, as they often mean the difference in big wins versus marginal improvements and, consequently, whether a business unit stays committed to the work with IT or wanes in its enthusiasm.

9. Be upfront about risks

IT typically houses project managers, or at least workers skilled in project management principles, which makes the department well qualified on identifying risks and planning mitigation strategies.

Juliano leans into that, using that information to help shepherd initiatives from start to finish and through any periods of concerns or doubts that come up.

He says it’s easy, and understandable, for executives to focus on the benefits and ROI of any given project. And while conversations about ROI are crucial for getting buy-in from stakeholders, Juliano says focusing on those good points upfront may not be enough to sustain everyone when they hit bumps moving forward.

“So have honest conversations about the risks and what you’re going to do about them as well as what the rewards are,” he says, an approach he says works particularly well for CIOs who have built a record of successful change management which demonstrates to their workers’ ability to mitigate risks.

Juliano says he has found that upfront honesty helps address doubts and questions that stakeholders have, prepares them for any obstacles that arise, and reassures them that there’s a plan to pull everyone through.

Juliano points to one particular initiative, a construction project which had a lot of technology components. He brought up potential stumbling blocks and how to address them. He found that others had been thinking about the same potential obstacles. And by vocalizing concerns about the roadblocks ahead and plans to deal with them, he got everyone together to move forward.

10. Use retrospectives to strengthen partnerships

Dunbar says encouraging introspection and feedback from business teams can yield insights on how they view IT, the work it delivers, and where improvements could create a tighter coupling of interests.

As she explains, “Using retrospectives to gain insight on third-party vendors and IT team performance is very helpful. The beauty of the retrospective is that they can be done midway through the year or at any point during the performance of a contract. We recommend that an independent party lead the sessions and that members of the IT team not participate in the sessions to enable candid feedback from the business teams. This type of activity builds trust between the business and technology teams.”

11. Create cross-functional centers of excellence

Another way to get everyone in the same boat — and keep them rowing together — is by creating cross-functional centers of excellence, with the functional business areas involved in projects contributing key players to work with IT, says Mark Taylor, CEO of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

“You’re capturing the innovative energy happening in pockets of the organization and moving it toward more coordinated efforts within these centers of excellence,” he says. This creates a camaraderie where CoE members are able to show up as contributors, which helps eliminate siloes of work and turf wars while building a sense of team.

It reinforces the idea, he explains, that teamwork “is how we collectively get this done.”

12. Empower the business

Robert McNamara, a partner in business and IT strategy at consultancy Guidehouse, says IT can get and keep business buy-in by empowering business units to make and manage some tech-related decisions and tech-driven initiatives.

“There are some things that makes sense to be managed by a tech unit within a business [function] versus the centralized IT organization, and that line of business can reach out for support to the centralized IT organization if and when needed,” he explains.

McNamara says having business units in charge of some technology programs can reduce costs and risk while also improving alignment and compliance. All that, he says, can help get and keep the business onboard with IT strategy.

CIOs can work with their business unit peers to create guidelines for what tech would be better managed within the business units, establish the governance needed, and articulate the benefits this move brings, “whether it’s to shorten the feedback link between the users and what they need from the technology, accelerate innovation, or improve compliance,” he says.

McNamara adds: “If you focus on that, versus who controls it, it helps demonstrate that IT is looking out for the business needs, so they see it’s not about turf.”