Lessons from IBM's CIO community

Everyone selling high value solutions wants to engage C-level executives.

They're the ultimate decision makers. They can provide deep insight into both their own companies and emerging issues in your markets. They can give you the most powerful references and testimonials.

Of course they're also the hardest to reach.

Most B2B solution providers have some sort of executive relationship program, often with some combination of advisory councils, executive briefing centers, executive dinners and seminars, and similar initiatives. And most of these companies struggle mightily to make these programs work and gain substantial value from them.

Karla Bousquet, Director of Executive Client Marketing at IBM, provided some useful insight from IBM's experience during a webinar today organized by Farland Group (full disclosure: I used to work with Farland Group principals when we were all at Truman Company).

Most important, according to Bousquet, is beginning with a clear understanding of what senior executives (CIOs, in this case) truly value:

  • Engaging with their peers and extending their professional networks
  • Influencing the direction of organizations or initiatives that are important to them
  • Gaining justification for their business direction and intuition
  • Sharing best practices and lessons learned from peers and experts they trust

They're busy, they don't really care about your products, but they are anxious to learn and grow, most especially with their peers.

In this context, IBM has taken a strong community approach to serve CIO (and IBM) needs, with four core objectives:

  • Establish a shared agenda for engaging with peers and influencing IBM's strategy
  • Deliver on IBM's belief that customers play a key role in driving new ideas and innovation
  • Provide CIOs with access to experts and expertise across IBM and its partner ecosystem
  • Work with CIOs to share success stories that demonstrate business value with CIO contribution

Each of these objectives responds directly to one or more of the things that executives value most. It's difficult to succeed with any community initiative if you don't focus first on providing relevant value to would-be participants. It's doubly difficult with the busiest and most sought-after executives.

To make it work, IBM has developed a tiered program, with three distinct initiatives:

  1. Board of Advisors (20-25 CIOs). This is the most strategic of the three, and involves IBM's top executives as peers with CIOs from their most important clients. The primary focus is on providing advice to IBM on the company's strategic direction, something that the participating CIOs have great interest in given their enormous stake in IBM's success.
  2. CIO Leadership Exchange (200+ CIOs). Initially an annual event, IBM is working to build more of an ongoing community with this larger group of CIOs from top global companies. The focus here is on sharing of best practices and success stories within a highly accomplished peer group of technology leaders.
  3. Center for CIO Leadership (2,000+ CIOs). Focused on advancing the profession, this mission-driven organization, for which IBM provides lead sponsorship, emphasizes the development of leadership skills for current and future CIOs

The tiered approach helps in organizing IBM resources and responding to different types of CIOs with different levels of relationship to IBM. Underlying each of these programs, though, is a consistent focus on delivering the value that executive participants demand:

  • If CIOs want to engage with peers and extend their networks, make sure to prioritize peer exchange and access to experts in every aspect of community and program design
  • If CIOs want to influence the direction of your organization, make sure to empower them and allow them to do this, even if it means listening to dissenting views
  • If CIOs want to justify their business direction and intuition, create serious opportunities for collaboration and dialogue, along with providing relevant research and perspective
  • If CIOs want to share best practices and success stories, ensure a private and safe environment to enable them to do this with relevant and credible peers

It's not rocket science, but it's not easy either. It means letting go of the desire to pitch and sell, and committing to the hard work of listening, facilitation, and collaboration. It means having the patience to emphasize the longer term benefits at some potential expense to short-term gain. Most of all, it means truly putting customer interests first, something we all talk about but all too often fail to deliver.

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