Forging ties: How to build solid relationships

Opportunities for relationship-building occur naturally through every moment of the CIO’s workday. Whether it’s attending formal project meetings, dropping by a C-level peer’s office or spending a few days with stakeholders at a remote location, a CIO is constantly forging ties with peers, internal teams and customers. That’s a good thing, because solid relationships are cited as a foundation for nearly every professional ambition of the CIO – from successful project delivery to expanding the leadership scope of the role beyond the IT function. That’s because relationships shape the enterprise’s perception of CIO credibility.

CIO Executive Council members discussed relationship best practices at their recent General Assembly in Carlsbad, Calif., and offer these tips and techniques for developing and leveraging strong relationships with the right people.

1. Identify the targets

The most important part of the relationship-building process is identifying who to cultivate. “It was pretty easy for me to find my initial targets: the seven senior executives that along with me report into the CEO,” says Jeanine Wasielewski, CIO at Coors Brewing Company. When she was promoted to the CIO role in 2006, Wasielewksi was tasked with more than just operating IT; she was asked to move the business strategy forward leveraging IT expertise. The other members of the CEO team, including the chief marketing officer, chief supply-chain officer, the chief revenue officer, and the CFO, are key contributors to business strategy and therefore make ideal relationship targets for Wasielewski.

Linda Gilpin, the associate CIO for Enterprise Services at the Internal Revenue Service, looks to her peers for relationship-building advice. “Especially since I came to the IRS externally, I needed to build strong relationships and do it quickly,” Gilpin says. “I talked to everyone I could, got their suggestions of who I really needed to know and set up meetings with a multitude of stakeholders.”

Tom Langston, CIO at $2.5 billion SSM Health Care System, keeps his eye on the new hire announcements across the 20 hospitals within the SSM system. “Whenever I see a new president or vice president arrive, I make it a point to introduce myself and emphasize the value of his/her role as a customer of the IT organization,” says Langston.

2. Meet and greet

The first meeting is just the start of the relationship; what happens next is a constant building of credibility and trust. Just as doctors make rounds on patients to gather more information, Langston makes rounds on his customers and staff. It is a very deliberate relationship technique in which he conducts in-person visits with executives in hospitals across the four-state system. “I stop by and meet with the CEO or CFO and talk to them about what else we can be doing in IT to make them more successful,” says Langston. Langston says the value of face time with his dispersed C-level peers 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 made formal documents or relationship business plans to list and track their budding relationships.

Michael Whitmer, CIO for North America at the $1.3 billion staffing company Hudson Highland Group, listed the names of key stakeholders throughout the organization, their role, communication preference (email, phone, in-person) and specific topics/questions to discuss with them (see Tools We Use).

“My favorite question to ask is, ‘In order for me to be successful, what can I do to make you successful?’” shares Whitmer. The responses he gets give him a glimpse into the individual and what is important to him or her. After meeting with each individual, Whitmer took what he had learned and built a relationship plan covering ways to help improve their lines of business. He continues to maintain the stakeholder list today given executive-level turnover and the need to meet new peers as they enter the organization.

3. Using personality to your advantage

The process of relationship-building is made easier if people can leverage personality traits such as an outgoing nature, positive energy and charisma. “The beer business is a relationship business; our roots are in the relationships we build with distributors and retailers,” says Wasielewski. Because of this, relationship-building tends to be a core trait for Coors leaders.

Gilpin agrees that many executives count relationship building as a natural skill, but cautions that leaders still must practice consistently. “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.

But all hope is not lost for those CIOs who do not count relationship-building among their core skills. Mentoring and coaching can help. “Right now, one of my more introverted team members is focusing on relationship-building as a core area of improvement,” says Whitmer. “I am coaching the individual to do things as simple as meeting with someone face-to-face rather than sending an email update as one way to create lasting relationships.”

Adds Waskielewski: “If it’s not a natural trait, then you have to get really tactical and outline a series of steps to take; you need a plan of attack.” The goal is finding a way – any way – to deliver the relationship.

4. Bake it into the job

Gilpin likens the relationship process to finding time to exercise: she knows it’s valuable, but something else always seems to come up. Ideally, relationship-building should be baked into the daily workflow and made an ongoing part of the job instead of being treated as a special event or task.

For example, Gilpin recognized the need to have a standing weekly meeting with her peer associate CIO of application development to bring up issues and strategic discussion points between the two organizations and their projects. She also has a brief weekly standing meeting with all associate CIO peers to touch base and proactively raise any issues or need for more in-depth discussions.

“By having a set period of time each week reserved for us, the relationship is constantly being managed and communication is not just reserved for one-off situations,” says Gilpin. At the IRS, “It’s become part of the normal workday to communicate with different stakeholders,” she notes. “One of my favorite questions to ask during our meetings is who else from the other IT and business stakeholder organizations have been involved in this discussion and do they buy in to the idea?”

In the end, strong relationships provide benefits not only to the enterprise but to the executive’s career prospects. It’s much easier to survive a mistake if the CIO has built strong relationships and a store of good will and credibility. It can also help get you to the top.

Langston credits the relationships he established 15 years ago to his role at SSM Healthcare. Relationships with the chief operating officer and senior vice president of HR, nurtured by Langston while he worked in the employee benefits area, were integral to his getting placed in the CIO role six years ago. The two executives strongly recommended Langston as a strategic leader who would be great as CIO, 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.”

Sidebar Tools We Use

Michael Whitmer, CIO for North America at Hudson Highland Group, created a formal document when he first came to the company that lists key stakeholders throughout the organization, their role, and specific questions to ask each.

Sections of the questionnaire included: ? Who are the key people in your organization that I should develop a relationship with? ? What improvement can IT make to better support your organization? ? 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 kept notes from each meeting and formulated a plan based on things he learned from the questionnaire. For those executives who see IT as important to their function, he holds regular follow-up discussions to build solid relationships. In the interest of relationship-building, he also decided to keep the less interested parties involved in communications, as necessary.

Whitmer is also turning his formal 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 – ranging from project updates and budget overviews to his travel schedule and an “Ask Mike’ column – but he will be able to update it more frequently and be more casual in his writing style to show a different side of himself. Anyone at Hudson will have access to the blog, thereby building relationships outside of IT.

Whitmer also plans to highlight individual team member successes in real-time. “I think anytime you can communicate with the business or your own teammates on a more personal level, it builds and strengthens relationships – which is what I hope to achieve with the blog,” he says.

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