The CIO as Chief Communicator

The CIO as Chief Communicator

Being an IT leader means communicating up, down and around the company. In our 2004 State of the CIO survey, CIOs say once again that the single most pivotal skill for success as a CIO is the ability to communicate effectively.

The primary sin that managers working under Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) CIO Cheryl Hannah strive to avoid is the sin of ego.

In communicating with business executives, Hannah's well-primed team members carefully watch the faces of those they talk to. The instant anyone's eyes glaze over the managers are encouraged to stop, regroup and recognize that the air is rife with EGO. Humour is often brought into play at this point, as the manager confesses that EGO has been allowed to take hold. Then the manager will likely start again, either trying to use better analogies to drive their points home or else questioning their audience in detail about the sort of information they want to hear or need help to understand.

"If we see the expressions on people's faces going blank, then we know that we are not doing it right," Hannah says. "I'm not asking [managers] to be miracle workers, but I am asking them to be more conscious of their audience and if they do see that eyes-glaze-over condition emerging, to have the confidence and the courage to stop and actually acknowledge that they're losing their audience and see if they can regroup and do something about it."

Sitting down with executive peers, board members and users, and marketing the company's technology prowess to the outside world are all activities on which CIOs increasingly find themselves spending time. Today's CIOs know that ability to communicate effectively is pivotal to their success. Some 84 percent of CIOs in CIO magazine's 2004 State of the CIO survey rate ability to communicate effectively the most essential skill a CIO can have, up from 79 percent a year ago.

"Communication skills are central to anyone in a leadership position. CIOs need them for a [number] of reasons: one, to familiarize people with benefits of IT; two, to build relationships throughout the organization; three, to sell senior management on IT evolutions," notes John B Baldoni, who writes a regular column for Darwin magazine, part of CXO Media, which owns the US version of CIO magazine.

Baldoni claims to have seldom met a manager who did not think he or she was a fine communicator. The majority of managers may claim to be good communicators; but, as Boyd Clarke and Ron Crossland of the tompeterscompany! point out in their insightful book, The Leader's Voice, when those same managers are evaluated by their employees, the majority of employees say just the opposite.

CIOs who want their people to believe in them and to let them lead them need to communicate well. "My belief is the communication may be the very fulcrum of the leadership lever," Baldoni says. He sees three elements propelling all leadership communications: speaking, listening and learning. "You voice the message, you listen to what people have to say, you learn from what they say or don't say. That is the essence of the leadership communication cycle," he says.

"Communication at the CIO level is very critical to both the individual's success but, just as importantly, to the success of their company," says R Pierce Reid, vice president marketing for VoIP software company Qovia. "First, a CIO/CTO must be technically adept despite an environment of continuing rapid change in IT. Keeping up technically is virtually a full-time job in and of itself," Reid says. "But the CIO/CTO does not operate in a vacuum. In addition to being technically ahead of the pack, they must lead teams, secure budgets, justify investments in IT, read the tea leaves of technology to make good future decisions, and occasionally handle - with diplomacy - the calls that come in complaining about the network or IT system. These are the skills of a communicator, not an IT 'back-roomer'."

At Qovia, Reid says, CIO/CTO Choon Shim is also one of the key external faces of the company. As marketing vice president, it is Reid's job to get on the road to conferences and events and speak as the company's sales and marketing face. The CEO, similarly, is the public face from a business and investor perspective. And Choon is the face to the development and technology communities, speaking at as many as a dozen conferences a year and publishing constantly to showcase the company's technological prowess.

"Choon's speeches cannot be written - or delivered - by anyone but a technologist. The subjects are too difficult and the questions in the venues are too technical," Reid says. "Any company that wants to leverage all three legs of the stool - marketing, finances and technology - to show its progress and success needs a CIO/CTO who can communicate to a diverse external audience. In this, Choon is outstanding and in the presentations I have attended, he has kept the audience rapt."

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