Today’s CIO operates in an entirely different environment compared to a decade ago. Back then, the tech leadership role was primarily responsible for the operational aspects of IT, and, many would argue, the CIO often resembled Dilbert’s Mordac, the “Evil-hearted IS Director” whose sole goal seemed to be making computers as difficult to use as possible.

These days, pervasiveness of technology has established the CIO as the responsible party over a vital, core business function (IT) that supports all business units. This now requires the CIO to interact with other business units far more frequently and intensely than many of his peers. That’s why today, for both professional and career-advancement reasons, it is essential that a CIO to be a top-notch communicator and relationship builder.

A CIO’s ability to build rapport, and establish and maintain strong relationships with fellow CXOs (the whole gambit of senior management including CEO, COO, CFO, HR, and marketing), is second only to that person’s ability to identify business opportunities and to lead change.

The four necessary habits
While building strong interpersonal relationships with fellow chiefs may sound easy, it’s not. According to the report “Creating the CIO Executive Success Cycle,” from Gartner Executive Programs (GartnerEXP), success is tied to four key habits:

  • Ability to shape demand
  • Ability to set expectations
  • Ability to deliver
  • Ability to lead

While they’re not established in a specific order, Gartner’s report states that these four habits are found in CIOs “who separate themselves from the pack and sustain high visibility and influence within the senior leadership team.”

The report is compelling reading and provides a brief questionnaire that proves useful for a quick evaluation of a CIO’s strengths.

In the context of the report, the ability to develop good working relationships falls into the leadership category. It’s critical to success in the role and starts with simply being approachable. A CIO serves as a sounding board for CXOs and covertly educating the not-so-technically-savvy about how technology can help CIOs achieve their business goals.

As a leader, a CIO needs to acknowledge that fellow managers and their staff are key users of technology and therefore rely heavily on the CIO and the IT department. A CIO needs to have a good grasp of what the business problems and objectives actually are before determining what, if any, technical solution is applicable. Obviously, it’s a tough task if the CIO is removed from the business units or has frosty relationships with the business managers.

CIOs can boost their business grasp by asking this simple question in their relationship with each business unit leader: “How can I help this manager meet objectives, make the person’s job easier, reduce costs, etc.?”

In providing an answer, and to improve approachability, CIOs have to use plain English—it’s not a good time for techie speak. CIOs need to be interpreters—to take the technical concepts and terms and demystify them for the CXO audience.

Understanding other CXO roles
One key difference between the responsibilities of a CIO and CXOs is that not only is a CIO expected to be a high-level strategic manager, but in most cases, a CIO maintains responsibility for the operational processes that are acutely visible to the entire organization.

This makes it essential that CIOs have the basics down before they contemplate strategy or before they put other business units under the spotlight. Having the IT house in order is crucial to building credibility and respect. If users are constantly plagued by system outages and crashing applications, your credibility factor and that of the entire IT department will be zero.

Relationship building has been a pivotal part of David Chan’s role since becoming CIO of law firm Hunt & Hunt two years ago. The tech leader says good relationships are vital to credibility and IT respect.

“I go out of my way to do favors for my peers. They are trying to do a job, and assisting them is part of my job. It generates respect and puts a human face to technology,” Chan said.

Steve Beason, CIO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, provides similar feedback on his approach, though he puts a unique twist to forging strong relationships.

“I inundate them with quick-win projects to make their lives easier—even if it means going to their house and installing broadband, or getting a new PC for their desk,” Beason explained. Results of his initial efforts confirmed he was taking the right approach, he added. After setting up a home computer for one CEO and spending a few hours showing the company leader how to connect back to the office and access the Internet, “it generated a depth of reverence” for the IT department and tech leaders that proved invaluable down the road.

More ways to boost relationships
Nurturing a finely tuned “organizational antenna” is another way CIOs can build supportive relationships. This approach, however, requires developing a rapport with non-CXO employee staffs as well—and requires more time and effort due to the larger population.

But the extra effort can pay off, as building rapport with the wider user community is an excellent way to generate positive press with executive board members. As one insurance CEO explained, “never underestimate the influence secretarial staff have on their managers. A few minutes spent providing assistance, instead of behaving like a condescending technocrat, cements [a CIO’s] image as approachable and knowledgeable, and speaks volumes in their favor.”

Building positive relationships with fellow CXOs starts with being visible and approachable and then getting to know CXOs on an informal basis—one that provides an opportunity to educate and enlighten in a casual manner.

When CIOs see a knowledge gap, they should use management meetings as an opportunity to provide brief technological updates or educational sessions.

Cementing relationships paves a strong career path
When developing strong relationships with business unit managers, a CIO needs to be viewed as a business partner and not simply a service provider. CIOs would be wise to foster this approach to the next in command and encourage staff to develop similar relationships with their peers.

Listening, helping, and understanding the other CXOs’ needs can go a long way to establishing a CIO’s credentials as a business person, which, in this day and age, is precisely what you’re expected to be.