Can relationship management be taught?

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Over lunch today, I had a great banter with a CIO about one of my favorite topics: IT relationship management. Call it account management, the line CIO, client or customer relationship management: basically it is the role within the IT function that is the liaison to the internal client to help define and deliver IT solutions that meet their business needs.

So back to this past colleague of mine: he’s made a big shift in his organization over the last year by improving project delivery, primarily by setting better expectations up front and communicating more effectively with his business partners. His organization is no longer just responding to every request, they are partnering with to find the right solutions, what their business “needs” rather than what they “want”. Wow. I started quizzing him about how he was able to build these skills in his organization in only a year. His secret, he asserts, is to hire people into these roles who have domain expertise, rather than IT expertise. The guy who serves the engineering function has a background in engineering; the gal who serves the finance function grew up in finance, and so on. Furthermore, he doesn’t think these skills can be taught. And so the banter began.

For those of you who know me, I usually see the potential in people or the opportunities in problems, but I’m particularly interested in this because Jim and I have been talking to a couple of clients recently about helping them train and coach relationship management. One CIO asked us if we had seen good training in this space, particularly at the large consulting firms where we’ve worked. We affirmed what he had found: there’s very little training on this topic. And there is a need: we’ve worked with many clients who have people working in the IT relationship management role who grew up in IT. The question is, should those clients replace those people or develop the ones they’ve got?

Of course it depends. Some people are truly born with this skill or have developed it through years in consulting or similar roles; others were born with other skills and would not be happy or successful in this type of role. But there are many in the middle: they have interest and potential but little training or experience. I believe this partly because I’ve seen so many technical people grow up through the consulting ranks and become stellar relationship managers. When I started my career I was very happy to code all day without talking to anyone and now I thrive on solving business problems and working with people. So with some training and coaching on hard skills like analytical thinking, interviewing and presenting and some soft skills like trust, credibility, communication and persuasion, these technical people could be very effective. As long as they have a true interest in solving business problems with technology and as long as they care about people, the rest can be taught.

What do you think?

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