I was delivering bad news to a business executive — the system was down. I had delivered such a message to other business executives over the years, so I was expecting the typical lecture about the cost of an outage to the business.

The reply this time was different: "What can I do to help?" This shocking response was the result of having built a solid partnership with the business executive.

What can a CIO do to build and strengthen relationships with business executives, business partners of your organization and vendors?

Invest time in developing relationships. Reach out to partners. Meet with them. As in the outage example above, strong relationships can make the job easier.

Make deposits in the partner's emotional bank account, as discussed in Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Just like a bank account, you can make deposits or withdrawals from each relationship. Look for opportunities to make deposits in the emotional bank account of the partner, so that when you need to make a withdrawal, the account is not empty. In the case of a vendor partner, for example, offer to be a reference.

Ask for their help. Partners bring perspective, experience, influence and resources to the relationship. They know the challenges in the company or industry. Ask for their assistance with ideas, proposals and resources. Seek their support. Your success can contribute to their success.

Why are partnerships important? Because the CIO cannot do it all alone. Resources are limited and stretched thin due to budget constraints and skill shortages. Demands are high, and discretionary IT time is dwindling to zero. CIOs are forced to look to partnerships for help.

They also create synergy to where 1+1 can equal 3, capitalizing on the strengths of the partners to bring about greater outcomes.

Let’s examine four different partners, and how to improve each relationship.

1. Existing vendor partners

These are the vendors you currently work with. Some may be more strategic, but each relationship has value to you.

Meet with them regularly, even if you don't have an issue to discuss. Avoid meeting only when you have bad news to report.

Share your business plan. How can they help if they don't know where you are going? Lay out your key goals or projects. Seek their help, whether it be in the form of ideas, resources or products.

Review the data. This includes items like project status or help desk reports. In one of my vendor relationships, support was beginning to deteriorate. Initial response time was increasing, and it was taking multiple calls to resolve an issue. I requested a meeting with the vendor to review the stats. Before we had the scheduled meeting, the vendor's stats improved! It reminded me of a quote from "In Search of Excellence," by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.: "What gets measured gets done."

Provide feedback. Share what is working well and what is not. Honest feedback helps the vendor help you.

Attend user groups. Participation in the vendor's user group shows your commitment to the relationship. Collaboratively, the user group can bring suggestions for improvement to the vendor. Offer to present at the user group meetings or conferences, another sign of commitment.

Offer to be a reference. Helping the vendor by being a reference is a deposit in the vendor's emotional bank account. Help the vendor to be successful; the vendor will be inclined to help you.

2. New vendors

These are vendors you are not currently working with, yet they can still be of value. I once calculated that if I met with each prospective vendor for an hour, as requested, I would spend the next 10 days in continuous vendor meetings from morning until night.

Here is what I proposed to quickly assess if these new vendors could help.

A one-page vendor profile. I asked each new vendor to complete an online form providing their contact information, what technology space they were in, how they differentiated themselves from competitors in that space, and key client references in which I might be interested. The vendor typically complied with my request, as it was a foot in the door. And I could review the form in 10 minutes or less.

A one-page company profile. I provided them with a quick overview of our company and IT: what business were we in, how many employees, revenue numbers, key objectives for the coming year and key problems we were trying to solve. This document was met with rave reviews. It captured the elements a vendor would want to know, and with a minimal investment of his/her time.

With the vendor profile and company profile, we could mutually determine if there was a topic or project where the vendor may be able to help. A one-hour meeting was then highly productive, not a fishing expedition.

3. Business partners

Meet regularly. Look for opportunities like vendor user groups, CIO groups, Society for Information Management chapter meetings or joint projects.

Share your plans as with vendor partners.

Provide feedback. What is working well? What is not?

Seek opportunities for smoother hand-offs between the organizations. How can you improve processes between the two companies? Leverage technology in finding improvements.

4. Executives within your company

Use the compass framework (discussed in this previous article) as the foundation to gain credibility in these relationships. If projects are late, systems crash frequently, IT costs are over budget, etc., the CIO will have limited credibility and opportunity in helping plan for the future.

Success can contribute to the CIO having a voice with executive partners and at the senior leadership table.

The strategic plan is at the center of the compass diagram. The plan should drive innovation, what projects to take on, partner collaboration efforts, everything. The CIO can be a key contributor to that plan by engaging with executive partners.

Meet regularly with the executives. Invite them for coffee; it might be the best $4 investment you make. Executives typically can take a few minutes from their busy schedule to meet over a cup of coffee. Meeting on neutral ground, not in their office or yours, is a friendly and nonthreatening approach.

"Seek first to understand, then to be understood." (from Covey's "7 Habits" again.) Ask about what is going well with the business and IT, what are the issues, what keeps him/her up at night. Listen, take notes and ask questions. Avoid offering solutions before hearing their story and spending time to analyze it.

Share the IT plan. What is IT trying to achieve in support of the overall business plan? How can the business executives help if they do not know where you are going?

Provide feedback. Review relevant data. For example, report on the status of the executive's key projects and any issues. Patterns or frequency in help desk calls may suggest a training opportunity.

Present/initiate ideas to help. Offer ways that IT might be of assistance. Try to make emotional bank account deposits.

Ask for their help. The executives have perspective, experience, influence and resources to offer. See if they will help you achieve your plan, in support of the overall business plan.


Using the techniques in this article, we were able to achieve:

  • strong support from business executives, whether it be for support in a crisis or resource commitment to key projects,
  • strong collaboration with business partners of our company, implementing one of the first healthcare data sharing projects in the nation, and
  • strong vendor support, providing help that exceeded expectations.

By investing in these relationships upfront, we were able to make emotional bank account deposits before needing to make withdrawals.