C-level types talk the talk of IT-business partnership, but at the end of the day you must learn their world and assert your expertise.

Coverlet Meshing, Contributor

April 25, 2013

4 Min Read

Anywho, your new powers of empathy will teach you a lot during this step (i.e., be kind to your stakeholders because they're well intentioned enough). Fold that learning into what you already know about how the road to hell is paved (i.e., just because their heart's in the right place doesn't mean they understand a service-oriented architecture). Focus them on describing their business problem, not the IT solution. Challenge them to think critically and to be driven by data. And never, ever kiss their ring.

3: Shadow the customer.

Not in a creepy "I'm in your bushes" kind of way, but with data, both quantitative and qualitative.

Start with Web analytics. Pick up one of Avinash Kaushik's books or read his blog. Or Google "multiplicity strategy." (With your porn filter turned on, obviously.) A deep understanding of Web analytics is the absolute lowest bar for IT leaders who want to redefine stakeholdership to include customers.

Level up by actively admiring cultures of empathy. Follow companies that understand its value. Not the big, "innovative" ones that get all the press -- Apple, Google, Twitter -- because that's an outside-in view by journalists who pretend to understand tech, the business equivalent of admiring Brangelina. Instead, follow Intuit, IDEO, Zappos, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines. And wait for the light bulb to turn on about the link between cultures that value empathy (and humility and compassion and collaboration) and those that demonstrate a deep commitment to customer service.

Finally, the master class, for the most daring, is to tread where IT mortals dare not: actually meeting with real customers. Your stakeholders will wince, but I guarantee that it won't be because your customers are sick of talking with your stakeholders.

This is habit four of highly empathetic people: Listen hard -- and open up.

Customer voice, which is impossible to capture without the foundational building block of deep customer empathy, is a sterile beast in large companies, usually farmed out to business consulting elves. Few if any have figured out the basics of engagement, which is what underlies everyone's nervousness.

But success isn't for the faint of heart. Customer contact introduces a complexity that can't be managed by the public relations department. And God forbid you leave the marketing folks in charge. They ooze authenticity.

How do you mature social media management to the point where you genuinely engage customers with authenticity? How do you go from tweeting at each other to establishing a dialogue when you have 10 million customers? How do you stop focusing on the loudest voice or the most familiar?

I have no clue. But whoever does it first will win.

4: Transform your org to disintermediate your stakeholders.

Dartmouth hosted a workshop in 2006 titled "The CIO as Strategic Partner." Maybe it's because I was wearing my Che Beret, but I read their output as being less about how to get a seat at the table and more about how to own the table.

The point is that you need to move past the stale idea that IT's role is to "service the business." That sounds HR-inappropriate anyway. Your new remit should be to proactively anticipate market needs. How? See section 3.

A singular focus on reducing costs? That's your Dad's IT shop. Your focus should be on revenue and profit. You need to recast IT from a cost center into a business contributor and reframe it as a competitive advantage. How? See section 3.

You need to transition from supporting operations to enabling innovations. From rigor to flexibility. From planning to agility. Take as many steps as you need to get to the epiphany, but get there.

And don't worry if it sounds revolutionary because you're exercising habit five: Inspire mass action and social change. And once the transformation takes hold ...

5: Invite the business to what is now your table.

Fight the urge to channel Samuel L. Jackson.

Your empathy muscles will be well developed by this point, so you'll understand that your stakeholders feel both threatened and oddly empowered by the credibility that you've brought to IT.

To recap, here's my heretical statement of the day: The larger the company, the less likely that IT's business partners add value. And you, regardless of where you sit in the organizational hierarchy, should feel empowered to eat their lunch.

Drive the necessary changes by exercising the final habit of highly empathetic people: Develop an ambitious imagination. So that the next time your business stakeholders tell you what they want, you can look at them in the eye and live a little. Respond with: "Well, I want a pony. And a pony for my pony."

And then do what an equal partner would do: Tell them what your company really needs.

About the Author(s)

Coverlet Meshing


The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually software companies and need to invest in engineering as a core competency. His cheery outlook and diplomatic nature are rarely reflected in his writing. Write to him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @CoverletMeshing.

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