Leadership

Strategies for boosting communication with the CEO and fellow board members

Strong communication is vital to a successful CIO-CEO relationship, but it's a challenge because CIOs are still pretty new to the boardroom. A key element is adjusting from an IT-centric focus to a business strategy focus.

CIOs often face challenges in their efforts to communicate with CEOs and other high-ranking company executives. Interviews with C-level executives and management experts reveal two interrelated elements for successful communication:
  • CIOs must reach out and create alliances—with the CEO and others who report to the CEO—to play an active team role.
  • CIOs must speak to the goals of the business in terms that a CEO and other executives can easily relate to. Focusing narrowly on the concerns of the IT department is counterproductive.

These are two of several tasks that experts said CIOs must focus on to improve communication and relationships with the CEO and executive colleagues.

Walking the walk
Many TechRepublic members, when asked about CIO shortcomings, cited personality issues—a factor that is likely the hardest to change. Others listed management abilities—actually the lack of strong direction. One security consultant who served as a CIO related a situation in which her CEO summarily changed the company’s business direction based on published monthly articles. The IT executive, who requested anonymity, was then charged with carrying out the revamped strategies.

“The employees would call it the vision du jour,” she said. “I had to deal with him and the tech staff without losing them, because they thought he was an idiot.”

The ex-CIO tried to use some of the CEO’s own words in creating a vision that made at least “some sense” to the IT department. Her interpretation didn’t go over well with the CEO, and he quickly relocated her to open a remote company office. Soon after, she quit.

“I think that particular situation was unwinnable,” she said. “I was trying to make it winnable, but it wasn’t going to happen.”

At another organization, the ex-CIO found that her approach was wanted because the CEO was savvy enough to accept coaching on what to say at board meetings and other appearances.

“She was well aware that she didn’t know or understand the technology and didn’t want to know,” said the consultant. “You can work with this type of person.”

The bottom line when it comes to executive communication is that there has to be a willingness to communicate from both sides.

“It comes down to their egos—whether or not they are willing to say, ‘I don’t know anything about this and have to find somebody who does,’” she said. “The CEO or anybody at the C-level who is willing to leave their ego outside the door will hire the person who knows the most and can get them the farthest.”

The tough tasks
Matching IT strategies to a CEO’s worldview and working with unique personalities are easier than succeeding at what many believe is the CIO’s toughest communication task—focusing on the company’s overall success and not just targeting technology initiatives.

“Eighty percent of the companies I worked at, there has been a complete disjoint of the IT plans from the business goals,” said Chuck Foley, CEO of InfiniCon Systems Inc., makers of high-speed I/O devices. The CEO described an ideal CIO as a leader who not only sees ways to cut expenses and increase efficiency in IT, but can offer insight into savings or better efficiencies that can best benefit the business.

Another communication hurdle is that the CIO role hasn’t been at the board table for years, like the CFO or COO. That’s a main reason CIOs experience difficulty in being heard and brought into the corporate fold. Modern IT just hasn’t been around as long as finance, sales and marketing, manufacturing, and other departments.

“IT didn’t grow up” with these other groups, explained Faisal Hoque, founder, president, and CEO of Enamics Inc., a business technology management software and services company.

It’s analogous to someone moving into a new neighborhood—many CEOs who come through the sales ranks are already well versed in relating to COOs, CFOs, and other department heads. CIOs generally come up from the technical ranks and speak a jargon-filled language that can be indecipherable to many CEOs and other executives. You to work hard to avoid feeling, and being treated, like second-class citizens in the boardroom.

“In order to lead the process along with the senior management team, they first have to have equal footing, a seat at the table with the rest of the organization to start making that happen,” Hoque said.

New skills can help
Presentation skills can play a big part in avoiding these kinds of relationship pitfalls. But realize that presenting information to CEOs is far different from dealing with engineers at a conference.

“CIOs have an interesting challenge,” said Carmine Gallo, principal of a media training and presentation business in Pleasanton, CA. “These guys have a math background or programming or accounting. They are linear thinkers. There are two problems with that as communicators: They fail to make an emotional connection with the audience and they hide the 'sizzle.’”

The answer, Gallo said, is for CIOs to constantly ask themselves how the topic that they're discussing with senior management changes or improves the lives of the executives in the audience. You must express the answer in a simple, but not insulting, way. “Even though CEOs today are more tech-savvy than before, I still think the message is lost when the CIO tries to impress with jargon,” he said.

Creating a strong relationship with the CEO and other senior team members includes broadening communication dialogue to consistently include information about how IT's activities can support the success of the company. But it’s clearly not an easy job given the audience.

“It’s very difficult for many senior executives and CEOs to get their heads around the fact that IT is not just another cost center, but something that is every bit as important as R&D in developing products or sales and marketing in pushing the product,” Foley said.

Pushing for acceptance requires that CIOs view themselves a bit differently than they ever have.

“The CIO has got to understand the business first and be able to add value in terms of business,” said Jon Piot, COO of Impact Innovations, a company that runs IT departments for midmarket companies. “They’ve got to think in terms of revenue, products, services, and costs and not think in terms of technology because to the CEO, at the end of the day, technology is secondary. The real point is to increase productivity or to lower cost or figure out how technology supports products.”

Networking rears its head
A good way to establish CEO communications is to first establish consistent lines of communications with other executives who report to the CEO, Piot said. “CIOs need to have great relations with key management people under the CEO, such as the VP of sales, the head of manufacturing, the head of marketing, and the COO.”

One approach is to have an unofficial luncheon with the executives on a regular basis, perhaps once per month, Piot suggested. The value is two-fold: CIOs can talk about business issues as well as begin building personal relationships. While it's difficult to quantify the value of the personal connection, there is no doubt that it can help spur the professional relationship.

Piot related an experience that clearly illustrated how relationships can be a vital element—or the undoing of a CIO. Piot was brought into a $200 million Dallas manufacturing company to assess the company’s technology, and part of the process included interviewing executives. The VP of sales told Piot that he hadn’t spoken with the CIO outside of official meetings in more than a year.

“That was the initial tip-off—it wasn’t a good sign,” Piot said. “Nobody respected the CIO at all. He focused on managing his own team and wasn’t interested in the business. They ended up firing him.”

Some experts stress that communication-building approaches should be more formal than lunch get-togethers because the CIO job is so complex.

“He [the CIO] has to gather that information in two directions: from the CEO and the board. These are things about the business climate and competitive direction and he or she has to have the staff survey the landscape to see what technology is available and how that technology can best achieve those goals,” explained Dr. Ernest Forman, a professor of management sciences at George Washington University. He is also a cofounder and CTO of Expert Choice, a company that makes software for gathering and disseminating corporate decision-making.

Forman said he developed the product because a traditional communication approach—memos sent back and forth between the CEO and the CIO, and the CIO and his staff—doesn’t work well; the camps don’t have a common nomenclature to call on to deeply understand the information, nor agree on metrics to gauge progress.

Driving the ultimate goals
No matter which communication venue you choose, Hoque pointed out that there are three mandates for achieving success and strong relationships:
  1. Establish a view of where the technology investment is being made.
  2. See how that investment maps against overall business goals of the organization.
  3. Create a “holistic” picture of how the business strategy and model ties into the business’s processes, applications, and systems.

Forman and Foley agreed with his assessment. “The CIO needs to develop a language that is understood by both the CEO and business people and at the same time shows technical people what the business connection is between the technological and business goals,” said Forman.

The key—whether the basic approach is informal lunches, highly structured software packages, or a combination—is striving to effectively communicate. As Foley noted, “A CIO who can relate the impact of information technology to the overall business is an awesome asset.”
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