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."

Page Break

Listen Up

In the State of the CIO survey, Australian CIOs rank ineffective communication with the user community their fourth biggest hurdle (rated that way by 40 percent of recipients, up from ninth biggest hurdle a year ago). They also know how important it is to build empathy and a mutual understanding with their peers. Some 23 percent say they would leave their job if they were experiencing disconnects with their executive peers, while 8 percent confess to have been forced out of a job for just that reason. But such disconnects can also force CIOs to rethink the messages they are sending - and the way those messages are being formulated.

"In the past I have worked in organizations where IS was seen as a function of the accounting department," says Allens Arthur Robinson (AAR) CIO Chris Holmes. "This placement led to IS being disconnected from the organization as IS issues, other than the correct running of the general ledger, didn't capture much of the CFO's attention span.

"It was a great training ground because I was forced to develop the communication skills necessary to connect to the organization's leaders. I needed to communicate at a level that was understood in the context of the business. It really involved building empathy with each individual and being able to interpret technology to their need and level of understanding. [Today] I constantly find myself cast in the role of techno-jargon translator and business application visionary."

Indeed James Huckerby, CIO at western Sydney entertainment behemoth Panthers, thinks the nature of the CIO role means disconnects on a daily basis are inevitable. "I am the conduit between business and IT," Huckerby says. "A big part of this role involves acting as a 'translator', by explaining technology in a way that is understood by executives. Getting around these disconnects can be a challenge, but an enjoyable one."

For instance Panther's CEO Shane Richardson is as "BS" savvy as he is technology savvy: a problem given that Huckerby confesses to occasionally being guilty of having bandied about terms he was unable to explain when pulled up.

"A good example of this was the use of the term 'enterprise architecture'," Huckerby says. "The CEO wanted to know why this was known as 'architecture'. I was flummoxed. I knew what architecture was, but came into some serious difficulty when explaining it to the team. My initial answer probably came out along the lines of: 'It's just the vibe of the thing.'

"I asked if I could get back to him on it. I have always liked the [Peter] Weill and [Marianne] Broadbent triangle model for explaining architecture, but realized that it would not really get my message across."

Huckerby's solution was to reformat the model into a house, representing the floor as the infrastructure, the walls as the transactional systems, the windows and doors as the informational systems and the roof as strategic systems. By presenting a slide showing a neat little house with each component of it marked as described, then another with all the components lying in a heap, he was able to demonstrate that without an architecture, you are not going to get much of a house. The analogy worked, he says.

While today's CIOs, like Holmes, have often had to learn such skills the hard way, the next generation of CIOs might find themselves entering the job a little better equipped. Increasingly, programs to help students acquire effective communication skills are becoming a major component of IT degree courses.

"[Communication skills] are absolutely vital," says Roy Hill, Faculty director of IT for the Hunter Institute of Technology, who also runs the Australian Information Industry Association's (AIIA's) Education and Employment Forum in NSW. "It's one of the things that we really stress with our students: the importance of communication skills in the industry. It's not [being] the nerd sitting behind the bloody keyboard in front of a computer, it's actually getting out and talking to the customer that counts."

CEOs increasingly know this. Hill says feedback from CEOs show soft skills around communication, interpersonal relations and teamwork loom far larger in their minds in choosing a CIO than any number of technical skills. "A lot of CEOs say: 'If [a potential CIO] hasn't got the technical skills - and they usually haven't got those skills in the area that I want anyway - I can give them the skills; but if I can't have them sitting in front of a customer inside of two weeks, they're no use to me'," he says.

By the same token, many CEOs are actively opening pathways to their CIO in the name of improved communication.

"This is the best job that I've had in terms of the levels of communications being opened among the various levels of organization," says Max Gentle, director of Information Management with the Tasmanian Department Of Education, who has been working in government and semi-government roles since becoming a CIO. "It's the meeting regularly and discussing the variety of issues, and really communicating - which means talking through ideas - that keeps the communication pathways open. I'm part of the executive management group and that meets monthly. I meet with my deputy secretary on a weekly basis and with other executives on a less frequent basis."

Gentle says keeping the communication lines open, and being prepared to discuss the full range of issues with people, has proved the best way to build and maintain trust, both among senior management and the school principals he works with.

Page Break

Everybody's Talking At Me

CIOs also know that when it comes to communication it's both the who and the frequency that count.

The CIOs in The State of the CIO survey report spending more than 25 percent of their time interfacing with department heads and CXOs and communicating with business executives; 29 percent of their time managing IT staff, including hiring; 11 percent interacting with outside business partners/suppliers (other than IT vendors) and customers; and 10 percent talking to IT vendors.

"I was with an organization quite a few years ago where the executive group felt the need to develop a financial plan to support a strategic model that they wished to progress with," Holmes says. "Basically we started every morning for a couple of months with a half-hour discussion on how you might do this particular thing, or that particular thing in Excel, hinting at development of a strategic view of what that particular organization should do. We were trying to build a business model that would represent the market we found ourselves in [a way] that was very different from our parent organization."

As a result, he says, he effectively became an honorary member of the executive group, largely thanks to his ability as a translator and to put the technology into the strategic context. "Without having had those sessions where I was essentially acting as a teacher, but continually relating it to the strategic exercise at hand, it would have been very difficult to assume that role," he says.

CIOs know that regular communication pays off. When asked in the survey which IT practices they rated as highly effective in adding value to the business, some 71 percent ticked: The IT organization communicates with its user population at large on a regular basis, giving it a ranking of number three; 78 percent ticked: The CIO is part of the executive management team/committee, putting it at number one; and 73 percent ticked: User representatives from the affected departments or functions are involved at all stages of an IT initiative, ranking it number two.

Yet knowing something is important and being able to do something to advance that something are not always synonymous. As Hannah points out, IT people - so frequently highly introverted by nature - find communication hard enough at the best of times. Being trained to recognize when EGO has raised its ugly head is one way she believes she can encourage her managers to help others by helping themselves.

Feedback suggests the initiative has been noted and appreciated. Hannah's board of management has made clear it is very alert to the fact that her team is trying to communicate with them in ways that mean something to them, rather than persisting in providing vast volumes of "dense" information without any heed to how it is presented or the language that it is being presented in. Direct feedback from DIMIA's CEO, the Portfolio Secretary, makes clear he likes the way Hannah's team presents its reports to the board of management, because it is clear her team is making that effort to communicate in common terms.

Page Break

Talking to Both Ends of the Hierarchy

As CIOs have taken on more of the responsibility for shaping broad strategic goals, their ability to communicate their reasons for fostering or eschewing various technologies, and their ability to argue against unrealistic demands and expectations from end users and board members alike, have assumed growing importance.

Being able to communicate directly with those at the very top of the hierarchy is increasingly part of the job description. Again, according to the State of the CIO survey, some 35 percent of CIOs now report to the CEO (up by 7 percent on a year ago) and only 11 percent to the CFO (down 18 percent). The same percentage who report to the CEO report having their best working relationship with the CEO, while 31 percent say they work best with the CFO.

"I report to CEO level," says Panthers' Huckerby. "I have a great working relationship with the CFO and the CEO. It would be hard to rate the working relationships between them but I guess I have a better relationship with the CEO as the CFO has only been here for three months. The CFO has a good head for technology and we bounce well off each other. Over time I think our working relationship will be at least on par with the CEO. I certainly hope this happens as he is the guy with the money."

"I have a very strong relationship with all the executive group," says AAR's Holmes, who says he supports his formal communication efforts by "going out of the way" to have casual phone and face-to-face conversations with constituents to maintain a background understanding and a shared experience.

Austrade CIO Greg Field, who also works as the organization's CFO, has developed another strategy. At the time of writing, he was waiting for a new position to be filled within the IT Services Group: group manager, IT Business Support. That person's job will be to maintain and develop contact with the user community.

It is not that Field had got to the point of diagnosing an organizational weakness in this area, he says; it is more that he was acting from a view, supported by Gartner research, that there are ways to support the business and institutionalize those connections with the business. On the other hand, the new position will by no means obviate the need for Field to maintain high levels of communication with the user community.

"As a member of the executive [group] I report direct to the CEO, and we have fortnightly executive meetings, we have quarterly face-to-face meetings and because we're a dispersed organization we have communication happening by e-mail or phone calls or video conference as well," he says.

Asked whether he spends much time thinking about better ways to communicate, Field says not overtly. "What I spent my time thinking about is better ways to improve the service, and the communication actually follows from that."

One of the challenges some CIOs deal with is the fact that generally speaking they are technical experts and have spent most of their time keeping up to speed on technical issues.

CIOs have not focused on emotional intelligence (EI) and the skills needed to reach employees and colleagues with a persuasive and motivational edge, says Alex Ramsey, president LodeStar Universal. "Yet all leadership roles require the ability to communicate not just adequately but excellently. They are often playing a catch-up game.

"One solution is to find a coach who can advise, teach and help them develop skills as situations arise. This is one of the most effective solutions, because it involves multiple interactions and is not a one-shot solution," Ramsey says, which is perhaps not an unexpected approach since his company provides executive coaching.

Page Break

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.