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Sebnem Gurler-Oakman - IT Director for TUII & RUB

I have always been fascinated by the area of business engagement; the usage of technology at top capacity and the continuous improvements that can be gained through effective collaboration. My motto is; connect, communicate, collaborate!

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In my role as the Geography Information Technology Director for Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Iran, as well as Unilever Central Asia, I am responsible for partnering with all business functions by providing IT services, integrating changes and new initiatives on the ground to achieve superior user experience and business growth.

I have been working for Unilever for more than 20 years and have held various roles across IT, as part of local, regional and global teams. The opportunity to work with diverse teams, cultures and ways of working on many transformation programmes has made this an exciting time.


So called ‘Supporting Functions’ are today as critical as traditional core functions in companies; they are now key enablers for growth and competitive advantages. It is impossible to market and sell goods while also creating a winning culture without the commitment of the whole company. Having worked in various IT projects and services for 21 years, I have realised that a real business partnering mindset can have a huge impact on the business’ value which supporting functions can generate.

The most important aspect in building a successful supporting function is having a strategic business partner positioned to support the functions they are working with. As an IT professional I am focused on positioning IT as a key, strategic business partner for all functions, and this has been a focus throughout my career.

However the key drivers of business partnership I will cover in this article can be adapted across all functions which are providing business partnering to others functions.

I believe there are key practices that individuals can adopt to ensure effective business partnering practices. I call these my 10 Golden Rules.

1. Listen first!

It is essential to actively listen first without attempting to help, resolve issues or take any steps. A good business partner takes the time to fully understand and confirms the understanding, never assumes that he/she already knows the answers, and tries to get a comprehensive view of the whole story. A rush to talk before listening is the biggest threat and results in misunderstandings and failure.

2. Ask the right questions

In order to understand the other party, questions are the building blocks. One who knows how to ask the right questions and analyses matters through those questions, can have good understanding even in situations where things seem unclear at first. This is the opening door for the action planning which will follow. Only after good questioning can proposals be brought to the table.

3. Create a collaborative environment

Business partnering, by its very nature, works both ways. Therefore it is key to create a collaborative environment for both parties to feel engaged and be part of creating solutions. Interactive idea generation sessions, Q&A’s, effective responsibility delegation, celebration of the successes, sharing the learnings and moving out of comfort zones are all necessary for ensuring the spirit of collaboration.

4. Be transparent about what you can and cannot do

Business partnering requires open sharing of constraints and limitations; it is not about trying to do everything and pretending there are no barriers. In today’s working environment we are all striving for efficient use of scarce resources and it is important to be clear about this. Whenever it is not possible to provide an exact requirement, it is necessary to provide alternative solutions and open up an interactive discussion around those for decision making.

5. Communicate regularly

It is crucial to communicate accurate information in a timely manner, on a regular basis. Good news, challenges, issues should all be shared with transparency covering plans, options, impact. Delayed communications will always create larger issues.

6. Be proactive

Simply responding when there are complaints is not sufficient. It is even more important to come up with ideas, follow external trends, competitors, successful practices and share where appropriate without being asked; take the lead!

7. Keep the pulse of the functions you support

A good business partner has a great understanding of the functions he/she supports, beyond their own specific business area. It is key to learn about their challenges, key success criteria, targets, progress, plans and interest areas. Attending their internal meetings, away days, celebrations and having general chats are as important as the project and service-related tasks when it comes to keeping the pulse.

8. Let off steam when there are frustrations

No matter how much the business partner tries, there will be issues, conflicts and impossible requests. In those cases, it is really important to let the other party share the complaint fully without being defensive. Rules one and two come into the picture here; for every hard situation, there are options, possible solutions that can be reached with a good understanding, questioning and strong communication.

9. Identify key stakeholders at all levels - build networks

It is extremely important to know the key stakeholders and understand how to influence their decisions. Stakeholders may be at different levels of the organisation, and that may go beyond hierarchies. Therefore it is critical to pay attention to people with a strong, positive impact on the people and processes.

10. Earn trust through expertise and confidence

People position individuals in the way that they position themselves. A strong business partner demonstrates expertise in their own area and acts in a confident way, and obviously delivers based on promises. In this way, he/she becomes a trusted partner in time. This happens through own achievements and positioning rather than titles and organisational hierarchies.

While you may think that this is easier said than done, I have seen great examples of business partnering at Unilever that demonstrates to me that the above rules can be applied. While this needs time, effort and concentration, ensuring that these strong, supportive relationships are in place will help you, your team and the wider business have a real impact.

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