This content is part of the Essential Guide: 2015 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium guide: Digital disruption
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C-level relationships, engagement key to CIO success

CIOs spend 40% of their time engaged with the CEO, CMO, COO and other non-IT peers, according to MIT research. C-level execs explain why that time is so important.

As most CIOs know, success in customer engagement can have a great impact on the success of the business.

But engagement of a CIO's own peers -- at the C-level, in particular -- can be equally critical to a CIO's career and the goals he or she sets for the IT department. So said Nils Fonstad, research scientist at MIT's Center for Information Systems Research, while moderating a panel discussion on the influence of the digital age on CIOs at last month's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.

Fonstad cited research by MIT's Stephanie Woerner and Peter Weill that showed CIOs spend about 40% of their time engaging with non-IT peers -- up from 30% four years ago. "CIOs are able to take advantage of digital … by working with non-IT peers, whether it's the chief marketing officer, whether it's the chief operating officer, the CEO, etc. CIOs are not able to realize this value on their own," he said.

Panelist Shawn Banerji, managing director for Russell Reynolds Associates, a technology executive recruitment firm, pointed to the perils of a schism in C-level relationships for CIOs -- a problem that can relegate the CIO to a keeping-the-lights-on role.

"Historically, the CIO/CFO relationship was a very important one. It will continue to be prominent. But there are emerging new relationships such as with the marketing organization," he said. "If the CIO and CMO can't forge a productive work alliance, that's creating another opportunity altogether, which is the chief digital officer. That individual will come in and supersede the CIO for many of the more innovative aspects of the role as well as connecting with the CMO."

Peter Nichol, head of IT for Access Health CT, suggested that IT needs to "be the business." That is, the IT department needs to conceive of itself as a vital part of the whole organization, rather than as a separate unit operating under a different mandate. "If we look at ourselves as IT and the business being over there, by default, we're not the business, so we're a cost center. So, we should be eliminated. We should start to crank those costs down to eventually be zero or as close as we can get," he said. The CIO can combat that idea by regarding IT as a more integral part of the business – and, by extension, by more closely aligning with non-IT peers, Nichol suggested.

There are consistent competencies and qualities that tend to resonate with most successful CIOs, not the least of which is ... not [acting like] they have a monopoly on all the right answers.
Shawn Banerjimanaging director, Russell Reynolds Associates

Nichol also touched upon the "strength in numbers" theme. "If [the CIO pitches the] value [of a project or strategy by his or herself], it's going to be a really long-winded sales pitch that won't result in a lot. If you go in as a team with some of the other partners on the leadership team, you're in it to win it. … You have a lot better chance of adoption and a successful business outcome."

Another panelist, Brook Colangelo, executive vice president and CTO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said shadow IT presents an opportunity to engage with the other sides of the business, and sometimes it means admitting that the CIO isn't omniscient. "When someone says they have Dropbox or Box or some other shadow IT thing, my innate reaction is, 'Ugh.' Then I think, 'This is a good idea. … The business is on to something. Let's see if we can learn something and scale.'"

Banerji echoed Colangelo's call for CIOs to learn from their peers. Humility can go a long way in forging C-level relationships, he said.

"There are consistent competencies and qualities that tend to resonate with most successful CIOs, not the least of which is … not [acting like] they have a monopoly on all the right answers," Banerji said. But, he added, "it's also asking great questions, being a great listener -- really hearing what it is the business and other partners are seeking. Functional partners, internal stakeholders, customers. Being able to express genuine empathy, to be able to listen and genuinely hear and then be able to take that information, aggregate it and put it into action in ways that will bring others along on this iterative journey."

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How important are your C-level relationships to the success of the IT department?
Critical, yes, but aren't relationships critical to nearly any relationship with peers and superiors?

Low trust costs time and money. It's exhausting to follow up on someone you don't trust, and you have to be very specific, like a lawyer, to nail down all the details. And you'll still probably miss something the other person can exploit, or they can miss your point. With high trust, you understand each other. If that isn't key to figuring out and accomplishing strategic objectives, well, man. Weird. Tell me about that company!
I agree with this article, these relationships with other executives in the business are absolutely essential. Yes, functions of the IT department include "keeping the lights on", maintaining servers, and other boring stuff.

But I really think that we all need to identify with the business. It's important to avoid being seen primarily as a cost center. We provide tons of business value, too. 
Good point, Matt. So how do you build trust with counterparts in other business units?
Thanks, abuell. The idea of not being seen as a cost center was a quick mention during the panel. Maybe it deserves more coverage on our site. How good of a job is IT doing at not being seen as a cost center?
I’ve seen a shift in perspective regarding this issue in our department of the past couple of years. Not so much a shift in the importance of those relationships, because they have always been viewed as important, but rather a shift in how IT approaches the relationship. Previously, the CIO role was truly a technical role that made technical decisions and lead the department in trying to develop solutions to business problems. Lately, however, the role has changed to more of a less technical business partner who works in close liaison with the business to better understand their needs and communicate those back to his technical staff for implementation.
I don't think that anyone would argue that those relationships with non-IT peers are absolutely essential. Ideally, an organization's executives should be fully aligned with business goals and direction, and good communication is necessary to achieve that. 

There are very few organizations that could supply a business product without IT. We need to see ourselves as the business, and hopefully other executives will come to see us that way as well, so that we're not just viewed as a cost center.