CXO

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.

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