Building the Right Business Relationships

By Marc J. Schiller

Building good relationships with business counterparts is a topic that nearly all IT leaders struggle with on a regular basis. Some IT leaders misunderstand this important task and think it means they should spend more time going out for beers with their work colleagues. This is not the case. Developing a social relationship with your colleagues is not the same as developing a business relationship.

Social relationships offer a different set of rewards. Bonding with work colleagues over “How about them Jets” conversations and sharing personal moments makes the office seem a little cozier and more pleasant. However, you shouldn’t mistake these social connections for the strong content-based relationships you need with your colleagues. Business relationships are built around business-related, value-added, content­-rich interactions.

Yet, even if the vast majority of your communication with work colleagues needs to be about business-related topics, it can’t be everything. If the sum total of your interactions is nothing but business, business and more business, you’ll find it hard to tackle the more complex challenges of senior stakeholder management in which social credibility and comfort pave the way for difficult content-based discussions. The right types of social interactions provide an additional set of connection points with your business colleagues that can come in handy when you need them most.

This is true on the personal level and the group level. As a whole, IT staff members needs to be seen as people who are capable of genuine social interactions instead of just “the computer guys.”

The question, of course, is how you accomplish this.

What are the right types of social-based activities that IT and the business can share in common? Instead of generalizing about this, I’ll share a real-world example involving Nolan Bennett, vice president and CIO of Teva Pharmaceuticals.

A few months ago, right before Halloween, in the midst of doing all the content-related work of annual planning, Bennett pulled his IT organization together and told them, “We need to have some light fun with our colleagues. We need to show the business that IT has a human side as well.” Bennett’s idea was to take over one of the extra-large conference rooms at Teva headquarters and transform it into a multi-zone Halloween funhouse, with each zone designed and built by a different IT team. Once the zones were fully built, IT would invite the headquarters staff to partake in its newly created Halloween experience.

To motivate his IT teams to express their creative side, Bennett told them there would be a contest for best Halloween zone, which would be judged by their business colleagues.

Armed with a slim budget of $75 per team and a half-day off to create the zones, the teams went to work creating spooky displays for the Halloween party, which included not-an-insignificant amount of lampooning themselves and a few select business leaders.

The fateful day arrived. The scene was set, the Halloween room was darkened. Black-and-white Bella Lugosi movies were projected on the room’s sheet-covered walls while spooky Halloween music played in the background. Sure enough, hundreds of business colleagues showed up. Everyone laughed together, joked together and then voted for the best zone—and one triumphant IT team brought home the trophy.

The entire experience lasted just a few hours on Halloween afternoon, but it had an enormous impact. Both IT and business people talked about the event for weeks afterward. The type of comments I heard most from the IT team were along the lines of “It gave everyone a way of having a bit of fun together… and the business got to see we’re not all geeks!” Similarly, from the businesspeople I heard, “What a great idea. I never imagined the IT group was so creative and talented.”

The end result: a short, simple and inexpensive event produced first-rate results for the entire IT organization.

The right type of fun at the right time can be very impactful. In the midst of serious content-based work involving the annual operating plan, it was a great idea for IT to sponsor a break-in-the-action event. A little bit of fun not only built new bonds between IT team members working together to construct their own Halloween zone, but the viewing and judging process connected the IT team with their business peers in a new and positive way.

There is an important caveat, however, to bear in mind. This type of activity will fall flat if you don’t have your content-based business relationships and basic credibility already established. Consider Bennett’s example to be extra credit, not the main assignment.

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels on how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Get access to free videos and an excerpt from his book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at

You can read his previous CIO Insight article, “When a Project is Falling Apart,” by clicking here.

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