Leadership

When the CEO doesn't have a clue. What's an IT leader to do?

What do you do when your boss, who is not technically literate, speaks like he is?

In recent months I've heard more than a few IT leaders complaining about their CEOs (or other senior execs) who don't have a clue about technology, although they talk like they do.

The classic case: You attend a senior management meeting and the CEO or another senior exec is out there waffling on about the IT strategy to move toward "iPhone-enabled apps" or "leveraging the social media revolution to drive down IT costs" or whatever other kooky lines these guys come up with from time to time.

The criticism goes something like this: If CIOs are required to "speak the language of business" shouldn't CxOs also be required to "speak the language of technology"?

Perhaps, but in most cases, that's simply not a priority for most senior execs. As a general rule, their career successes don't hinge on being technologically literate.

So what's an IT leader supposed to do? Do you get up and correct your boss? Cringe in silence? Offer him an IT primer before his next public appearance?

The great divide

Basically, I find that the IT community breaks down into three camps on this issue. The first I call the Vengeful Technocrats camp. These are they guys who have been "kept down by the man" for a long time. Their server racks ridiculed; their efforts largely ignored. This group delights in seeing any businessperson make an idiot out of himself or herself -- especially in public. The real radicals in this group even start with the sarcastic statements like "with a CEO like this, it'll soon be time to find another job." The second I call the Happy and Lazy camp -- of the Seven Dwarfs type that is. These guys and gals hold no ill feelings toward anyone. They just want to have a nice day and stay out of the fray of those technically illiterate "users." So what if a businessperson says some funny stuff about technology, it doesn't make much difference anyway. Let's all just get along and go home by 5. The third camp is populated with the Go Getters. These are the IT professionals who are committed to realizing the strategic value of technology for their enterprises. They have that insatiable thirst to do more, better, faster using the power of technology. And they are convinced, despite the evidence to the contrary, that IT and business leaders were meant to sing from the same hymnbook -- and they want to sing. The problem for them is that the other choir members are a bit off-key on this number.

What you think is mostly about what camp you come from

If you follow my writing here or elsewhere, you already know exactly the camp to which I belong, and that's not just because I love the sound of a great choir. It just makes the absolute best business and career sense for IT leaders.

One of the most influential IT leaders I know from the financial services industry once addressed this very issue when speaking to a meeting of his direct reports. He said, "If you have any illusions that it's not your job to ensure that the senior execs around here can speak intelligently -- SPEAK, not necessarily understand every single detail but speak intelligently -- on the key aspects of our technology strategy and how it affects our business, then you're working for the wrong company."

He continued ... "And in terms of letting the CEO or any other exec make a public presentation where the IT issues about which they are speaking makes them look bad ... Recognize that this reflects just as poorly on you as the IT leader. You are the one who did not properly do your job to educate the business community and provide them with the right presentation and discussion materials." Amen.

Let's get started

But the CxOs and the IT leaders ain't gonna sing in perfect harmony right off the bat. To help make your senior execs more fluent in the IT strategy, you're going to need two things: (1) an IT strategy cheat sheet and (2) a few rehearsals.

1. The IT Strategy Cheat Sheet: Most business execs know they have to listen to the IT strategy at least once a year. A few of them are even somewhat interested. But they dread those presentations. Why? Because as a rule they are horrid. By now you ought to know that even the biggest IT fans aren't interested in a 60-page PowerPoint deck that details the IT strategy. At most you don't want to present more than 10 slides. But the most important thing you can do to promote executive understanding is to create a one pager that fully summarizes your IT strategy (12-point type or greater). That's right, a one-page document. It's called the IT strategy cheat sheet. And you will be shocked how many people will actually read it, refer to it, and use it. 2. Rehearsals: When IT leaders present the IT strategy, they often walk away with the false impression that since they laid it out so clearly and provided the supporting slides (and cheat sheet) that their business colleagues can also easily present the material. That's simply not the case.

In order for the CEO to effectively speak about the IT strategy he is going to need some practice. So make sure to allocate time in your presentation meeting to ask him the following question: "Using the cheat sheet we have created, could you please present back to me what you believe is the IT strategy and how it fits with the business?"

You will be shocked to see how much more interested he becomes when he is speaking and not you. And don't expect him to get it right the first time. Instead, expect a few mishaps and false starts that provide you an opportunity to further talk about the strategy and coach the CEO on its subtleties. It will be a very different experience than what you have had in the past.

Go on ... give it a try. Not only will it make the CEO and other execs more fluent in IT strategy, it will position you as a collaborative peer and not just "the IT guy."

Marc J. Schiller is a leading IT thinker, speaker, and author of the upcoming book The Eleven Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders. Over the last 20 years he has helped IT leaders and their teams dramatically increase their influence in their organization and reap the associated personal and professional rewards. More info at http://marcjschiller.com.

19 comments
Imprecator
Imprecator

Simple: a) If the CEO IS interested in having a clue, be a "go-getter" b) if the CEO IS NOT interested in having a clue, become a "Vengeful Technocrat" because since you'll be outsourced anyways so at least have some amusement.

tulgkb
tulgkb

It's hard to teach vision!

mcswan454
mcswan454

Mr. Schiller. Can I come with NO expectations whatsoever? This is what I try to do. My customers must dictate what they want. I will try to offer options, but if they are mindset on a course of action... Flame me if you need, but they'll LEARN form their mistakes. It's actually nice to be the consultant who was ignored... Why? Thay can always say what you didn't do; you have your proposal. Go figure. M.

titan81222
titan81222

In our company the CEO is least of my problems, I am blessed with a IT Director that does not speak the language. I have learned through trail and error to have informal pre-strat meetings with the top brass and listen to what they envision for the company, where they are heading and what they think they will need from technology. So doing I adapt a strategy that empowers them to realize there vision. Then the fun part starts here; couching my IT Director to a point were he understands and be able to communicate this strategy. The cheat sheet is a great tip, I always thought I had to add extra information just to explain all the detail and actually less equals more. Great article thanks.

marcy.ashley-selleck
marcy.ashley-selleck

Loved the article until the last line.. "IT guy"? What about us IT gals? Be careful, your make chauvinism is showing.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Sure makes for a lot of talk around the water cooler and employee lunch room. Most idiots wind up sticking their foot in their mouths and are revealed for what they really are. The board of directors are usually a bunch of cut-throat, back stabbing fools cut from the same cloth and it takes a revolt of the share holders to get things really straightened out.

jkameleon
jkameleon

It presumes, that CxO's consult their IT thralls before making public statements, which they usually don't. They pick their shit from infomercials instead. Trade publications are full of them, TechRepublic being no exception.

Tommy S.
Tommy S.

Let them make a fool of themselves. Its gonna be fun for everybody and youll be out of there by 5pm.

four49
four49

Maybe the author just enjoys offending the easily-offended, much like I do.

gregeva
gregeva

I find it sad that the author makes use of a quoted colloquialism "the IT guy"; and you feel that this is an insult to women, and state that the author is chauvinistic. Just because someone forgets to use he/she or they in a means to remove any gender specificity from their speech does not mean that they hold the types of opinions that you are referring to.

gregeva
gregeva

I find it sad that the author makes use of a quoted colloquialism "the IT guy"; and you feel that this is an insult to women, and state that the author is chauvinistic. Just because someone forgets to use he/she or they in a means to remove any gender specificity from their speech does not mean that they hold the types of opinions that you are referring to.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Is that some people in power have real problems accepting the feeling that they're on the school bench. They hate it, they want to know everything and be admired and worshipped. The article doesn't work with them, with them you'd better be happy/lazy or better yet, the cheshire cat. Invisible. If you somehow find yourself in a business that cares about IT while not being IT-focused, or at least the CEO cares... well, I guess then it could work. It's not a very well-argued point, but I guess some CEO's might like reading this kind of stuff. If they would want to care, even if they don't care and won't care.

HckrAdm2005
HckrAdm2005

your comment is very true but one also needs to keep talking to the CxO's and hopefully (even if it happens only once) they will ask your opinion before they present. In my opinion one should keep trying even if it never works/the CxO never listens because there will never be the chance of change if one stops.

gunga55
gunga55

In the English language the masculine is gender neutral. He/she or using she when one means every one is just poor English. Now you know and knowing is half of the battle.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I hate using he/she/it so I often condense it to s/he/it but my new word is often laughed at and misunderstood in live conversation.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Generally, the guy running the show is supposed to have a clue about the show he's running. CxO-s should not be clueless. If they are, they should be replaced, the sooner the better. Talking to them, helping them keep their undeserved jobs only delays the solution of the problem.

rackerman
rackerman

Thanks for clarifying the gender neutral thing. Now on to the topic at hand. Don't think for one minute that today's leaders (CxO's) aren't expected to understand technology jargon or otherwise. We are not just undergoing an evolution in technology but rather a transformation. Every business owner, CxO leader will need to be technology savvy, as it will be technology that drives success in their business. It will also require transcending the concept of IT and Business Alignment or integration

jkameleon
jkameleon

My point was, that CxO familiar with the business he's managing. CxO of the dairy or slaughterhouse must be familiar with food processing, CxO of chemistry plant with chemistry, CxO of dog poo removal service with ...well... dog poo removal. IT in such companies is auxiliary, it's part of administration. CxO don't need to be familiar with IT, and they are not expected to be familiar either. Consequently, they can't make fool of themselves by being clueless about IT. If, on the other hand, business is built around IT (for example software development, banks, financial services, logistics, etc), CxO must be familiar with it, because it's essential part of their business. Clueless CxO is a disgrace for himself, and his company, but there's nothing his underlings can do about it. Such person shouldn't be CxO in the first place, and the sooner he's kicked out of the job, the better for the company.

GKoontz
GKoontz

I think you have missed the point of the article. You both work for the same company, both of your jobs is to help the company, by helping the CxO-s understand IT you help the company. What they do and say about IT reflects on how well we are doing our job assisting them.

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