Despite considerable effort by IT functions to act as strategic partners to the rest of the organisation, business leaders and end users remain dissatisfied with IT's ability to meet their needs. In fact, only one-quarter of the business leaders who participated in the IT-Business Engagement Assessment survey ran by the CIO Executive Board, program of the Corporate Executive Board, rated their IT function effective at applying IT capabilities to business needs.

IT leaders typically look to IT-business liaisons or account managers to identify and shape business partner needs. It is increasingly common for CIOs to dedicate a senior-level individual in IT to serve as the single-point-of-contact for a specific business unit or region. Approximately 70 per cent of organisations have distinct IT-Business liaison roles. However, only 40 per cent of their business counterparts find them to be effective.

Why is a role that has become so common still underperforming? Consider the skills of your IT-business liaisons. Forming good partnerships? Listening skills? Building consensus? These are all necessary and not always easy to find, but business partners, require more from IT than just a good relationship. They look to IT to proactively suggest innovative and unique solutions. Faced with such expectations, the traditional relationship building skills of IT-business liaisons will not suffice.

We asked dozens of CIOs to describe the ideal profile for an IT-business liaison, and an interesting analogy emerged: "The skills CIOs ideally want in an IT-business liaison strongly resemble the skills of an effective salesperson." After all, liaisons face many of the same expectations; they must identify customers' needs both spoken and unspoken, shape and sometimes push back on demand for services, pitch new ideas, and aim to achieve the status of trusted advisor.

The Sales Executive Council, also a program of the Corporate Executive Board - serving heads of sales, recently conducted analysis to identify the capabilities demonstrated by successful salespeople. Several distinct profiles emerged:

  • The Relationship Builder: builds strong advocates in the customer organisation, is generous in giving time to help others, and gets along with everyone
  • The Challenger: always has a different view of the world, understands the customer's business, loves to debate, and pushes the customer
  • The Hard Worker: always willing to go the extra mile, doesn't give up easily, self-motivated, and interested in feedback and development

We have found that these profiles map surprisingly closely the profiles of IT-business liaisons. But which is more effective – someone who can challenge, build relationships, or just work really hard?

Among the profiles, the Challenger is far more likely to be a high performer and, in particular, to succeed in complex environments, where 54 per cent of high performers are Challengers and only 14 per cent are hard workers or Relationship Builders.

Relationship Builders seek to resolve tension and create a more collaborative, agreeable environment, whereas Challengers succeed because they can teach, tailor, and create constructive tension with the customer. This is not to say that strong relationships with business partners don't matter; they are important, but they're not enough to be successful.

The implication of these findings is that CIOs should recruit for and develop the following skills in IT-business liaisons:

Teach for differentiation: Reframe the way business partners view their business and their needs by offering a unique perspective and honing two-way communication skills.

Tailor for resonance: Link IT's capabilities to business partners' specific goals by understanding business partners' value and economic drivers.

Assert control: Pursue goals in a direct—but not aggressive—way by pressuring the customer where appropriate and discussing cost transparently.

Equipped with these skills, liaisons can go beyond relationship building, and make a real contribution to driving innovation and furthering enterprise strategic goals.

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