Iron Mountain CIO: 3 lessons for becoming a true business partner

One hint: During our transition from order taker to business partner, I would fine my senior staff $5 every time someone used the phrase “the business”
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IT and Business Alignment
In my 34 years in the IT industry, I’ve worked at organizations in which IT was very good at taking orders and being delivery-focused, and at more mature organizations that recognize the importance of having strong IT-business partnerships. At Iron Mountain, we recognize that the world is going digital, and we’re working on transforming our products and services to help accelerate both our customers’ digitization journey as well as our own. But while there are many IT organizations like us that are working on their digital transformation, many others are still maturing to get their footing as a business partner.
[ Read our related article by ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi, How automation helped my IT team make time for innovation. ]
I’ve learned that taking your IT organization from an order-taker to a business partner requires fundamental changes on many fronts: your foundational methods and practices, your organization alignment, skill set, innovative risk taking, and mindset. Here are three lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help you take your IT shop from an order-taker to a business partner.

1. Focus on business-relationship management

To evolve into a business partner, your IT group needs to have a strong blend of business experience and IT delivery experience. Rather than waiting for a business unit leader to express his or her priorities and pain points, it’s your job to understand those pain points, the context of the business, and the strategy of the company so you can proactively bring them ideas and opportunities for how IT can accelerate their business value.
That blend of IT, business experience, and consulting is what lends us credibility so we’re given the opportunity to help influence the direction of a business. But because that skill set is often difficult to find among IT professionals, sometimes it’s necessary to look outside IT.
I’ve been in organizations where this business-savvy IT sponsor is staffed from the business side and trained on IT topics, but I’ve also be in organizations where this person has come from IT and they’ve built customer-facing skills and competencies. Both are equally successful; it doesn’t matter where these individuals are sourced from. 
You know you’re making strides when folks on the business side are willing to recommend and nominate folks from the business organization to move into IT. I think that’s a very rewarding place to be because it’s a sign that you’re starting to gain trust and they see the value in having a business-savvy IT sponsor, or a partner that can help advance their technology investment portfolio.

2. Pick low-hanging fruit

In your personal life, successful relationships thrive on trust and credibility. The same is true in business. One way to gain that trust and credibility with business leaders and business units is by focusing on low-hanging fruit — or any opportunities for your team to continuously deliver and meet or exceed expectations. 
Over time, these successes will help you change the perception of the organization. Once that happens, you gain confidence, which leads to trust, which leads to the willingness to partner.

3. Evolve your skill sets

Any type of transformation requires a change to your skill set, and moving your IT shop from an order-taker to a business partner is no exception. I’ve found that there are a handful of skills that need developing, sharpening, or fine-tuning to help you get there.
IT folks, for example, are technically savvy and like to share knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes, though, we’re guilty of not pausing enough to just listen. It’s hard to relay to a business sponsor how you plan to help them unless you truly understand what their problems are. When we don’t listen, we send signals that we’re not interested. Learning to listen first and speak second takes patience.
Another valuable skill to hone is knowing when to ask open-ended questions. This allows the business sponsor or the business stakeholder to delve into more details about the problem they’re trying to solve for, which gives you more context to develop the right solution.
It’s also important to know how to "speak business” and improve your ability to discuss financials, business value, market conditions, or measures of success. All your conversations can’t center around technology; you need to know how to speak their language, too.
Finally, you need to develop your comfort levels with vendor management. As the pace of technology changes and as we embrace more cloud-based services, IT’s role is shifting from designing and building these technologies to acting more as a broker of services. You need to get comfortable with managing negotiations, P&L responsibility, and measuring third parties via KPIs on your own. You can’t walk down the hall and speak to these people like you once could in previous staffing models. 
Transitioning your IT organization from an order-taker to a business partner takes time, patience, and purposeful changes to gain trust and confidence. When we made this change at Iron Mountain I would fine my senior staff $5 every time someone used the phrase “the business.” IT is a business, too — and while we’re not sales, marketing, HR, or manufacturing, our business is called IT.
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Ken LeBlanc is a seasoned veteran of the IT industry, recognized for his ability and passion to successfully collaborate with executive stakeholders to deliver business outcomes. Most recently, Ken served as Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President at Iron Mountain.