Building Strategic IT Business Partners

Let’s start by defining the label.  You aren’t a strategic partner simply because your job title aligns you to an IT business client.  And, you aren’t a strategic partner if you see your role as identifying and addressing the stated needs of that client.  Strategic partners must bring more to the role than addressing stated needs.  A strategic IT business partner will routinely deliver the following results.

  • Identify latent needs, and describe how IT can help clients achieve their goals in unexpected ways.
  • Surface and resolve conflicts about goals, and build consensus on goals across clients.
  • Define a specific, causal connection between IT projects and expected business results.
  • Define and implement performance measures focused on achieving those expected results.
  • Anticipate business changes, and implement strategies to develop the relevant talent.


So, what prevents a person from growing into the role of a strategic business partner?  Across my years of coaching senior IT leaders, I have identified three factors that seem to predict who will or won’t make the shift.

  1. Perspective – To become a strategic business partner, you must shift from a relationship or “transactional” perspective to what we call a systems perspective.  Systems perspective enables a person to see distinctive ways to apply capability to purpose, to understand multiple perspectives during a conflict, and to identify the cause and effect needed to anticipate and prevent risk.
  2. Skills – Whether you call them “difficult” or “crucial” or “adult” conversations, you must be able to talk directly and descriptively about performance – especially with clients.  To conduct these conversations successfully, you will need skills to influence without authority, to confront and remedy off-track performance collaboratively, and to surface and resolve conflicts collaboratively.
  3. Fears – The biggest roadblock to partnership may be learned fears about acting as a partner.  A real partner will tell you things you don’t want to hear and help a person confront the roadblocks that prevent success.  Most people have been conditioned to defer to people identified as authority figures – especially the boss and client.  But if you want to apply your perspective and skills, and also help your partner succeed, you must get past the fears that block you from taking helpful action.


So, what can a CIO or other senior IT leader do to develop people into strategic business partners?  Following are a few steps you can take to get started.

  • Define what’s expected – The first step is to tell a person what’s required for successful performance.  This step may sound simple or obvious, but you’d be surprised how often managers struggle with it.  They talk in code (“be strategic”) or they soft-pedal the standards or they even avoid the conversation completely.  To build a strategic partner, you must set the high bar of impact on business results and difficult client conversations.
  • Surface fears about expectations – This step may sound unusual, but it’s critical for success.  I’ve trained thousands of people, on three continents, and each one admitted to fears about authority figures.  To get past these fears, the first step is to help the person surface and discuss them.
  • Talk about why – Most managers will talk about what and how, but not as many discuss the why.  However, the easiest way to help someone build strategic perspective is to describe why you made your choices.  When you describe why you used a different approach, you help the other person see a completely different way to think and act that can lead to different results.
  • Provide strategic opportunities – This step is different from the traditional idea of “empowering” a person by handing them a difficult project.  In this step, you put people into specific, focused conversations where you know strategic perspective and skill will be critical for success – and you coach the person before and after the conversation.  This step-wise approach helps a person build skills and confidence that will generalize to other conversations.
  • Provide specific, descriptive feedback – The most critical step is to provide specific and descriptive feedback.  Feedback here means specific information about how a person performed compared with expectations – results and actions and style.  It’s not about your judgments – good or bad – it’s giving the information a person needs to improve.