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CIO role at the C-level: How to build IT and business relationships

Strong IT and business relationships can make a big difference in strategic plans and execution -- but how do you build them? Learn what the CIO role means at the C-level.

For small and midsized companies, it's important to properly establish solid relationships at the C-Level, especially around the CIO role, to set a good foundation for continued growth. These IT and business relationships can dramatically increase the odds for strategic success by bringing information management to the forefront.

John Weathington
John Weathington

But in order for this idea to succeed, it must move beyond concept and into action. Let's look past the bromide and explore exactly what a healthy IT and business relationship looks like to get you started.

In general, a good relationship can be identified by the following qualities:

  • Mutual respect for what each component of the partnership brings to the table.
  • Collaboration in order to set the company strategy -- and make it happen.
  • An acceptance that the sum is greater than its parts; the group functions better as a whole.
  • The understanding that everyone has a genuine stake in the company's success (or failure).

How the CIO is valued by his peers during strategy discussions can indicate the type of relationship between business and IT. Everything else flows down from this point -- good or bad. A common set of afflictions, and corollary remedies, can be characterized on what I call the organization's IT Partnership Belief Matrix. On one axis lies the belief system of the CIO, and on the other axis, the predominant belief system of the rest of the C-Level staff.

IT Partnership Belief Matrix
Company Values CIO

The ideal situation is when both the CIO and his C-Level peers recognize, understand and embrace the CIO's strategic value within the company. This is a decisive company. This environment of shared respect across the C-Level creates a collaborative synergy, propelling the organization forward to meet strategic goals and visionary opportunities amidst continued growth.

To bring real value to your organization -- and to strengthen the CIO role beyond IT -- evaluate where you currently are on the IT Partnership Belief Matrix:

Divorced company: If the CIO doesn't believe in his own value when contributing to the company's strategy, and the organization doesn't believe the CIO should contribute to the company's strategy, then there is no partnership. In these situations, the CIO isn't invited to strategy discussions and is content with this -- often because he would much rather focus on building out IT's plans and visions.

This is a very dangerous state for a company because everybody is content being dysfunctional. Outside intervention is required here, with some sensitivity training on why it's important to partner strategically -- especially within smaller companies. This condition will exacerbate geometrically as the company continues to grow.

Disengaged company: If the company believes IT partnership is a good idea, but the CIO doesn't believe in his own value, then you have a disengaged company. In this case, the C-level staff will extend a hand to the CIO in the spirit of better partnership, but some CIOs don't want the added responsibility and don't really know how or what to contribute. For example, the CIO is invited to strategy discussions but doesn't contribute much. While he may try to participate, he's also looking for guidance on what the company wants him to do next.

A CIO in this situation will probably need some leadership coaching and some training on how valuable the information under his domain is to the organization. There may also need to be some organizational adjustments so the CIO maintains responsibility for this information. This will be relatively easy in smaller companies with less structural complexity.

Delusional company: If the CIO believes in his own value to the organization, but the other C-level staffers still consider the CIO just a service provider, then you have a delusional company.

For many years, IT has been viewed as merely a support service for the company. But since the importance of strengthening relations between IT and the business is hard to ignore these days, the C-level staff may indulge the CIO with insincere handshakes and agreements, only to continue on with business as usual, never fully engaging the CIO as promised.

For instance, you'll typically see the CIO take on traditional data collection and organization duties (i.e. data warehousing), but the data analysis will be handled by another group -- often one that doesn't roll up to the CIO.

In this case, the CIO must hold the other C-Level staff members to their agreement and take this opportunity to prove his strategic value to the organization. CIOs in midmarket companies have an advantage here because there's no need for grandstanding or ceremonious discussions -- one or two informal conversations should get the point across.

Use this information to decide today what steps you can take to become a decisive company -- and how you can take your IT/business relationship to the next level.

John Weathington is president and CEO of Excellent Management Systems Inc., a San Francisco-based management consultancy. Write to him at

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