How to be More Relevant to the Business

By Patty Azzarello

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Over the years, I have written a lot on the topic of credibility (see sidebar). Over and above delivering great results, building your credibility is necessary to enhance both your effectiveness and survivability as a CIO. It helps you avoid stupid questions, re-work, and endlessly defending your honor (and your budget). After credibility, relevance is perhaps the next most important consideration. Credibility is about what you are capable of, relevance gets at the “What have you done for me lately?” question.

For example, CIO’s with the best of intentions of aligning with their business counterparts often get frustrated because they get stiff-armed from the line of business managers. They can’t get meetings, or the meetings are always canceled at the last minute. You have all these great ideas about how IT can fuel their business growth, but you never even get to express them. If this happens to you, it is because you are not relevant.

So, how do you stand out and be seen as more central and critical to the business? If you want to increase your relevance there are a few key realities to consider. These are true for anyone in any function, not just IT.

No one cares what you do. The sooner you accept that reality, the faster you can be more relevant. Relevance is about being relevant to that which others already care about, not making others care about you.

Everybody is fighting dragons. If you are finding that no one is embracing whatever it is you are talking about (which is you fighting your dragons), step back and consider what dragons they are fighting. You need to either help them fight their dragons first, or show them why they can stop for a minute without getting killed.

Say you want to introduce a standardized CRM system into a new region. You go to a team to propose this―a change you feel is much better for their business. No one listens to you. The reason is they are already working hard to deliver on existing commitments (their own dragons). They simply can’t care about your dragons while they are currently engaged in battle with theirs.

You need to do something to either pause the battle, call off the dragons, or help them with their fight. If they are worried about orders, revenue, and cost your pitch needs to start with, “I want to talk to you about increasing your ability to get more orders and convert those orders into revenue more quickly at a reduce cost.” You can’t be relevant unless they think it’s important. And to make them think it’s important you are much better off to start with something they already think is important. Only then you educate them on something new.

Don’t try to educate people about your function. They don’t care. By definition, if you need to education someone about what you do, you are not relevant. For example, if you are trying to educate a business unit about a data center investment or network upgrade, remember they only really care about their business unit.

Trying to educate them about the value of what you are doing in your IT terms will waste time and annoy both of you. Instead learn about their business and translate everything you say about what you do into their language―the specific benefits for them. Your “data center” and “network upgrade” investments become relevant if they are presented as “improving customer service”.

Be a translator. Put the business in the center of your thinking and conversations, and translate everything you say into their vernacular. If you always talk to the CEO only about your function, you will not be building credibility and relevance. If you are only ever advocating about your plans, your budget, your functional objectives, you are not being relevant to the business. You are being relevant only to your function.

Your conversations and your vocabulary should be centered on business initiatives like quality improvement, customer loyalty, geographic expansion, channel optimization, etc. Even if what you are really talking about is needing more servers, more database contractors, or a software maintenance upgrade keep those terms within IT and translate your language to the vocabulary of business initiatives.

Be the voice from outside the company. You must keep educating yourself, watching for examples of how others do things, and learning from customers and peers. Bringing the external voice of the real world back into your business sets you up as highly relevant. But make sure there is a point to it. It’s not just about sounding smart. It’s about bringing high value, real world input into the business that causes positive action, so connect it with what the business cares about before you talk about it.

Deliver your work and more. Deliver excellent results but don’t expect that alone to make you relevant. Doing your job keeps you from getting fired. What makes you stand out, and makes you highly relevant is finding additional ways to add value to the business over and above what is in your job description. Otherwise, you are just one more person doing what is expected of them.

Today Patty is the CEO of Azzarello Group, a unique services organization that helps companies develop and motivate their top performers, execute their strategies, and grow their business, through talent management programs, leadership workshops, online products & public speaking.