CIO: Earn the respect of your C-level peers

At C-level meetings, do you feel that you're not taken as seriously as your peers from other departments? It may be that the internal perception of your people is holding you back. Read about what one consulting firm did to redeem IT's reputation in a major healthcare firm.

It's the monthly C-level meeting. The CEO is seated at the head of the table. Next to him on the right is the CFO, and on his left is the CMO. Also in the room are the Sr.VP of Sales, Sr.VP of Operations, Sr.VP of HR, the Comptroller, the Sr.VP of Product Development, legal council, and you, the CIO.

Each person in turn provides a report, followed by a healthy banter among colleagues. The CEO is asking questions and seeking advice from each person. Then it's your turn. You give your report. Silence. You wonder, did they understand what I said? Why no questions? Do they get it?

You think, I know I am as smart as any of them, I went to an equally good school as any of them. Why don't they engage me? Why don't they seek my counsel? Isn't technology supposed to drive the future of the company?

The truth is, you are as smart as any of them, you did go to an equally good school, and guess what? It's not your communication skills that are at fault. In fact, the reason you are in the room in the first place is because you either have excellent communication skills, excellent managerial skills, or both. It is these skills that set you apart from all managerial staff in the IT department, and it is these skills that set you apart from all of the people you competed with for your position. I have never met an accomplished CIO at a large institution who holds that position because of his or her technology skills. So why, then, do you feel you are not being consulted on strategic corporate issues?

Is it possible that it is the internal perception of the entire IT staff that is holding you back? Think about it: When you hired your staff members, you were interested in their experience, technology skills, managerial ability, and that they could get the job done.

But were you interested in their ability to perform as an internal consultative resource for their users?

A couple of years ago I received a call from a CIO for a major healthcare firm in the Midwest. She said, "I've been here two weeks, it's clear that no one likes or respects my staff, and all I have heard in the boardroom is, ‘I'm glad you're here because your department is a mess. Good luck." She asked me if I could apply my marketing skills internally to help alter the perception of IT within the corporation. I told her I could, but we needed to determine if, in fact, the perception was a reality. And if it was, we needed to fix the problems. She agreed.

We took a traditional marketing approach to solving the problem. We began with qualitative research (focus groups and one-on-one interviews), then quantitative research (a survey of 871 supervisors, managers, directors, vice-presidents, and senior vice-presidents who came in contact with the IT department).

Our objectives were to (1) determine a level of satisfaction with IT products and services from its user base, (2) identify key drivers of customer satisfaction so IT could prioritize improvement actions, and (3) analyze the data at levels that would provide IT personnel with areas on which to focus their efforts. The results of the research were most interesting: about one-third of those surveyed were dissatisfied with IT products and services; one-third were satisfied; and one-third were ambivalent. The IT organization was given strong ratings in technical skills and the dedication of its employees. Areas of improvement included flexibility in handling changing user needs and establishing partnerships with their users so that IT could be more aware of specific departmental needs and could work together as teams. But the most striking finding from the research was that while technical expertise was important, the most important factors of satisfaction are non-technical in nature. The three most important issues were:

  • Being proactive and future-oriented (anticipating needs)
  • Working together as partners
  • Serving as an internal information systems consultant that provides the best answers for application

In essence, the users said they wanted IT to provide their technical strengths in a more collaborative and customer-focused manner. In fact, 71 percent said IT should be more involved with its organization and 60 percent said they could serve their external paying customers better with more IT involvement. Clearly, the internal customers realized that they needed IT. The importance of the internal customers' need for this service-oriented approach proved itself at the end of the survey when the users were asked to provide an overall satisfaction rating for IT, and 65 percent said they were less than satisfied. There was definitely room for improvement.

We delivered the research results at the annual IT management meeting, sensitive to the fact that the average tenure for managers was 15 years, and we were about to tell them that 65 percent of their users were dissatisfied with IT. We tried to make it a positive experience, outlining the areas that needed improvement. We informed them that we (the CIO and consultants) were there to provide them with tools and direction on turning the situation around; that we would be delivering specific programs designed to address the areas that needed improvement; that we would be fielding the survey the following year; and that we had high expectations of realizing great improvements. And that did, in fact, occur. One year later, user satisfaction improved 43 percent. Eight of 11 divisional customers showed increases in overall satisfaction.

After careful analysis of the research, we knew we needed to change the way IT viewed itself within the context of the enterprise. Moreover, we needed to improve their communication skills. It's interesting to note that, in our research, we found that when IT people were asked who they worked for, the vast majority responded "IT." When we asked the same question of the health-plan business managers, they said they worked for the health plan. This is a telling distinction as to the differences between the two groups. The research revealed some of the perceptions and realities that needed to be overcome, including:

  • IT personnel tend to speak "techno-babble" to us.
  • IT personnel hold their cards close to the vest; they don't share information we need to know.
  • IT doesn't understand the business we are in.
  • Users don't know what the IT people do, or what they have accomplished by the end of the day, the week, the month, or the year.
  • IT is a mystery.
  • IT lacks knowledge of business objectives and strategies.
  • IT only has contact with users when the user requests a program and when it is delivered.
  • IT is too slow; they are not a partner in performance, but a deterrent to it.

Tips to improve user satisfaction with IT

The following are the programs we recommended and that were implemented:

An overarching account service system
This system would be designed to allow business contact with technical / service personnel as opposed to staff IT personnel. These individuals "worked for" IT but were "dedicated" to internal business departments within the enterprise. This provided a consultative professional with developing knowledge of the issues affecting specific business units that interfaced directly with the users.

Enterprise-wide communication strategy for new product launches
Prior to the internal rollout of an enterprise-wide new product or service, we required a comprehensive communication plan. The communication continuum stretched from project announcement to completion.

Creation of a quarterly IT newsletter
This was written in layman's language and distributed to the entire corporation. Each issue contained stories about various programs and new projects in the works. The most important component of each newsletter was a "projects at a glance" section that detailed the status of all major projects. It contained the following headings for each project:

  • Name of project
  • Benefit to customer
  • Status
  • Next steps
  • Completion date

Technology awareness sessions
These sessions targeted senior-level management and corporate officers. In these sessions, the CIO focused on new technologies that were on the horizon and how those technologies might benefit the corporation.

Brown bag lunch sessions
These were designed to promote intradepartmental communications as well as to demonstrate the knowledge and awareness of IT management as to "technology and the consumer." Each session focused on consumer technology issues, i.e., cell phones, wireless, laptops, PCs, etc.

Year-end review
Each year the IT department would publish a brochure that "celebrated the successes" of the IT organization. This piece was distributed to all employees and was a source of education as to what was accomplished. It also became a source of pride for the IT organization.

Open houses
Designed to bring out the human side of the IT organization, customers were invited to the IT department as a means of removing the mystery of technology. IT staff conducted the tours.

Wall of Fame
Wall posters were displayed within the IT department and featured IT success stories.

Changing the perception of IT

IT must be viewed internally as a positive asset. This occurs when the IT staff views itself as a member of the enterprise and not only as a member of the IT department. IT must learn to become customer-centric. To accomplish this requires a change of mind set. The development of consultative skills and improved communication abilities will be noticed quickly and appreciated throughout the enterprise. These behavior changes will result in improved levels of internal customer satisfaction. As the internal image of the department changes for the positive, the CIO will become the ultimate beneficiary. This first step will go far in earning the CIO an equal seat among his or her peers.

Jack Loewy is president of Jack B Loewy Marketing Consultants, and provides both internal and external marketing communication services. He serves the IT industry with programs designed to improve internal communications as well as resolve morale problems. Mr. Loewy can be reached at 502.228.8933 or at Visit his website at to learn more about his company and review other case studies.