These days it is not difficult to find CIOs who are excellent communicators. Unfortunately, it is also common to see many IT leaders who struggle to communicate well. Some IT leaders are very good at communicating technical information with their teams, while others communicate well with business users. Many, however, find it hard to communicate effectively with all the stakeholders in the business. I have been thinking about why this is the case and what IT leaders at all levels can do to improve their message delivery, be effective at leading and motivating their team and engaging with the business.
Many individuals working in IT start in technical or engineering areas where technical knowledge and skills are valued much more than communication skills. In these areas, peer group discussions are about technical issues and are usually full of jargon. Even when the individuals become team leaders, they have a technical team and a technical boss, so the style of communication does not need to change. Those who have to deal with business users often struggle to get their message across or to elicit ‘real’ requirements.
The inability to communicate effectively reduces one’s own performance and also damages the reputation of IT in the organisation. It can affect the relationship between IT staff and their peers. When IT leaders talk in jargon, their message is lost, misunderstandings occur and they fail to win others over to their cause. Communication blunders can adversely impact an IT leader’s career by reinforcing a ‘geeky’ image. Executives think if an IT leader cannot express ideas clearly, he or she should hire someone else who can.
Here are some tips on improving communications:
What is true for board communication also applies to communication with other individuals — speak in simple jargon free language. Talking in simple terms is always more effective than talking in jargon, even among technical people. When you use jargon, you assume everybody has the same knowledge level. Listeners who don’t understand the technical terms lose the message you are trying to deliver. It is even worse when talking to ‘the business’, because they will just stop listening altogether.
Don’t dazzle, get buy-in
Some IT people want to impress others with their brilliant solutions or ideas. They are very confident that they know the best way of doing something or solving a problem. They become so enthusiastic about their own thinking that they fail to get buy-in from the others. They don’t get the perspective of others or try and build a consensus. In fact, the enthusiasm and confidence of these individuals discourages others from raising questions or making suggestions. Others may seem dazzled by the good ideas, but it doesn’t mean they believe them or will become part of the solution development process. Failing to get buy-in at the start of discussions can create delays later as people struggle to comprehend why the solution is being implemented and why other approaches will not work.
Asking questions ensures understanding. It also encourages others to ask for clarifications, make suggestions and present other points of view. Asking meaningful questions and listening to the answers engages the audience, making them active participants. It can help reveal important information, insight or feedback. If you are presenting an idea or business case, asking questions facilitates understanding, which can lead to a buy-in.
Don’t act like a sales person
New IT leaders try to motivate their teams or get them energised by behaving like sales people or sport captains. They say phrases such as, “go get them” and “play to win”. IT staff are generally low-key and like facts and logic, not rah-rah. Learn to speak with the audience in their language. Similarly, using scare tactics to sell ideas does not work. IT leaders talk in terms of catastrophic consequences when discussing technical upgrades or investments. Most experienced business executives have heard these doomsday scenarios from IT before and find them unconvincing. Using rational, measured arguments and discussing options improves understanding along with the presenter’s credibility.
Too many facts spoil the pitch
Just as too few facts don’t make a good argument, too many facts can confuse instead of enlighten. Some leaders think they would be more credible if they have a fact-heavy business case or presentation, especially for IT investments. Telling a story can be more powerful than a litany of facts, charts and analyses. Others are also looking for passion and commitment to rally them to the cause. Don’t become bogged down in technical problems Technical problems may be the most pressing issue on your mind or in your day, but most people don’t want to know about your technical problems. The jargon in talking about technical problems can be boring or may cause others to misunderstand and panic. As a leader, you are expected to handle technical problems yourself or ask others how they could help. When leaders regularly talk about their technical problems, others may think you can’t handle the job. If the problems are important be brief with the details, tell others the possible impacts on their business and what steps you have taken to resolve the problems without resorting to detailed step-by-step explanations.
Don’t forget your team
Many IT leaders focus their energy and communication on the upper tiers of management and business managers. While it is important to communicate effectively with management, remember your team needs to hear from you as well. The team will have questions and concerns and, consequently, will need direction. You need their buy-in and support to achieve your goals and perform your role.
Don’t bypass other leaders
Many senior leaders believe they are better communicators than their managers and team leaders. While it is appropriate for major company news or changes in direction to be communicated from up above, research indicates that communication to the team from their direct leader or supervisor is the most effective and most credible. Immediate supervisors know the on-ground realities and can address what is important to their staff. Employing the organisational hierarchy to cascade communications prevents mixed messages and conflicts from occurring. It also avoids the inadvertent undermining of subordinate managers.
Discussion or direction
In meetings, make sure it is clear when issues or items are being discussed and brainstormed. Many leaders don’t clarify when the discussion is over and a decision has been made, creating confusion within the team. If the team continues to discuss decisions after they are made, the leaders’ authority is undermined. In strict hierarchies, once the leader has an idea, the team feels it is disrespectful to challenge it. In this case, encouraging exploration and discussion needs to be very explicit. On the other hand, when a decision is reached, clarity in assigning responsibility and actions improves communication.
Making a written record of the decision in meeting minutes or in a follow up memo further facilitates clear communication. A written record of the decisions made and the instructions given provides useful information for those who were not part of the meeting or the discussion. Written instructions create clarity and avoid confusion as different participants may have a different idea of what decision was reached.
Final wordRemember, improving communication is not a one step process. Communication continues to be a problem in all organisations. To become better at communicating requires practice and more practice. Good luck!
Hemant Kogekar is the principle of Kogekar Consulting. He has previously held CIO/IT director positions with Suncorp, Citigroup and Franklins. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org