The CIO as Chief Communicator

The CIO as Chief Communicator

Winning an Audience

Other than having interesting ideas, a CIO gets nowhere without getting people to listen and then understand and believe in the propositions offered, according to Richard E Boyatzis, Professor and chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Boyatzis says to achieve the costs and changes implied in information systems to organizations, people around a CIO must be inspired to move ahead. Rational arguments do not convince people of anything - 50 years of research in social psychology has shown that, he says. People are moved by content with an appropriate emotional message. To have something "stick" in a person's mind, you have to arouse their neo-cortex (the "thinking" brain) and their limbic system (the "emotional" brain).

"So what differentiates outstanding CIOs from their average counterparts?" asks Boyatzis. "About 20 or so competencies, or abilities."

Of those 20, about 18 constitute what are called emotional intelligence (EI) competencies. "These have to do with the CIO's ability to be self-aware, manage his/her emotions, be socially aware, and use his/her emotions in managing their relationships with others," Boyatzis says. "The other two competencies are arguably systems thinking and pattern recognition - two cognitive competencies. This set has been shown to predict outstanding executive performance in many, many studies around the world.

"What do you get when you have a really smart, technically expert CIO with little or no EI competencies? A nerd who no one except other nerds listens to, unless they are in the mood and patient, which is not too often," Boyatzis says.

SIDEBAR: Three Ways to Communicate

By Mark Lutchen

A CIO should engage an IT organization communications professional to assist in crafting appropriate messages tailored to specific circumstances, audiences and purposes. Generally, corporate communications fall under one of the following three categories:

MARKETING. Marketing messages are communicated through various media in ways that are attractive and appealing to specific audiences. They're crisp and brisk. Their purpose is to get the audience to accept the message quickly. For IT, marketing efforts seek to build awareness of the IT organization, of its attributes and of the role it plays in accomplishing the company's business goals.

Caution: Because of their tendency to produce technical solutions, many CIOs and IT organizations mistakenly focus on e-mail for marketing. In almost all cases, a more appropriate combination of media is more effective.

IT organizations can use marketing to build awareness of the services they provide, of current performance levels and of projects in progress. They can also use marketing to prepare various constituencies for changes to those services.

PUBLIC RELATIONS. The field of public relations seeks to use "free media" to increase awareness of an organization and of the esteem in which it's held. When communicating to an internal audience, the CIO and all of the company's IT professionals must portray their activities as being "under control" from a performance, economic, organizational and management perspective. For example, the IT team should regularly use PR to tout 24/7 services and special projects.

Even the simple act of explaining mundane services such as help desk usage statistics can provide a PR message. Doing it with a spreadsheet sends a message: This is a techie organization. However, adding a little narrative spin, including some trend analysis and a few clear, colour graphics conveys a different message: The IT group is able to measure things in a business-focused manner. Better yet, if the message is delivered in a formal briefing session rather than by e-mail, the CIO is seen as one of the company's leaders.

Public relations can also be used to deal with IT crises. In fact, in today's world, because IT touches just about everyone in the company, the manner in which IT crises are handled can make or break the CIO, the entire IT organization and perhaps even the company itself. Possible events that warrant the use of "crisis PR" include a merger or acquisition integration mishap, a catastrophic failure of a mission-critical application, a network or critical infrastructure failure, a significant security breach or unchecked virus attack, or a physical disaster.

OTHER COMMUNICATIONS. Beyond marketing and public relations, other communications in which the CIO or other members of the IT organization engage include:

  • Regularly issued (quarterly, semiannual and annual) operating reports.

  • Formal organizational leadership meetings and conferences.

  • Open forums, which can range from brown-bag lunches to e-mail bulletin boards.

One of the most effective communication tools I've ever encountered involved a CIO's regularly scheduled personal visits to local office locations. The CIO would engage in informal discussions with the IT organization's key customers/users and with business-unit management. In addition, the CIO took the opportunity to meet with local IT staff members to talk about the organization's overall strategy and to solicit their views and concerns. These were highly successful sessions because everyone involved derived something positive from them. As soon as the CIO would leave a location, staffers would be on the phone or writing e-mail trying to set up a date for the next visit.

The direct, personal approach of this CIO created substantial trust and credibility among users, business-unit leaders and IT staff alike.

Adapted from Managing IT as a Business: A Survival Guide for CEOs, by Mark D Lutchen (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Lutchen is the former global CIO at PricewaterhouseCoopers and is now leader of the firm's IT business risk management practice

Straight to the Top

Are you talking to me?

Effective communication involves more than having strong communication skills; it also relies on knowing how to get through to the right person with the right message. Jim Hoverman, a marketing consultant and CEO of Blue Chip Marketing Group, calls this "summiting", and has encapsulated his techniques into a book, Summiting: The Art of Building and Sustaining Relationships with Customer Top Management (New Voices Press, March 2004).

Hoverman says building relationships with customer top management has become increasingly important for three key reasons:

  • Companies are finding it increasingly difficult to leverage the value they have invested in the products and services they take to market.
  • Lower level "transaction agents" are trained to "devalue the value" vendors have invested in their products and services.
  • Customer top management are the individuals who recognize value issues and have the authority to approve significant purchases.

"Today, building value-based relationships with customer top management is a 'got to have', not a 'nice to have'," Hoverman says. "It's learning the language of these key executives so that you can integrate the values that your products or services deliver into these dialogues," he says.

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