by Dan Roberts

How CIOs become visionary communicators

Apr 29, 2019
CIOIT Leadership

The best CIOs give their communications leaders a seat at the table, partnering with them to improve their own communications and the IT teamu2019s communications.

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Credit: Getty Images

When last we met, I summarized two key lessons from a dozen leading IT communications professionals. As CIOs fight a never-ending battle for talent in a hyper-competitive marketplace, and as they struggle to elevate their organizations from basic service providers to strategic innovators, their approach to communications becomes vital.

The best CIOs give their communications partners a seat at the table, and in this second part, I’ll cover two more lessons heard around those tables. Last time, we discussed the art of communicating your signal through all the media noise, and the connection between internal and external communications.

And any talk of external-facing communications brings us to our third lesson …

Lesson 3: Your CIO must build a strong personal brand

The CIO is the external face of IT — and for tech-heavy industries, maybe a key face for the whole business. While the keep-the-lights-on CIO did not necessarily come up through the ranks expecting to be a public figure, this kind of executive poise is mandatory today. And if it doesn’t come naturally, the communications lead has to help instill it.

“Our CIO was reluctant to be that face,” Ted Hernandez, senior director of IT engagement at Dignity Health, recalls. “She said, ‘I’m from the Midwest; we don’t brag about what we do. Anyway, it’s not about me; it’s about us.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, but for it to be about us, you’ve got to get on the map and show that you’ve got a team that’s worth joining, that you’re a CIO people want to engage with.’ It’s all about building the culture.”

It’s about making sure people understand your story and your value, but some IT leaders are introverts. Certainly, no CIO has ever been found guilty of overcommunicating. My research into high performers has found that communication is one of 14 core competencies of the most successful leaders in high-performing organizations. Yes, speaking to the media or to a conference audience is outside some CIOs’ comfort zones. But if there’s one thing my organization has proven, it’s that these skills can be taught, and that when CIOs and their teams understand marketing communications and have a few tools in their belt, they’re amazingly creative. It’s a real game-changer.

Collectively, these communications veterans offer a great formula for building your external presence as a “thought leader.” Start with small, regional speaking engagements — especially in areas you’re targeting for business growth or talent recruitment — and amplify those appearances with social media. Build to a point where the story, and the CIO, can be credibly pitched to the media. From there, pursue more regional or national engagements, and continue.

Lesson 4: Unleash your hallway ambassadors

I was glad to hear this topic come up; it’s one I’ve been passionate about for 30 years. Every IT staffer is an IT ambassador. The credibility of your IT organization is enhanced (or not) through every interaction between IT staff and other business teams.

We’ve been helping IT staffers communicate an awareness of IT’s value for years, and we’ve found that the most introverted IT folks become amazingly savvy day-by-day marketers when they understand how to do it, and that they’re already doing it in every interaction.

By instilling a new mindset, developing new skills, and providing a framework for developing IT marketing plans, everyone builds the competence, confidence, commitment, and consistency that elevates IT on the value curve. We start to communicate our messages in the form of business benefits and impact, not the features that no one cares about.

“People within IT have to know not just their domain, but the bigger picture: the IT strategy and what it means from a business perspective,” says Corky Valenti, senior manager of IT communications at Asurion, a global tech care leader. “Otherwise, not only are they not going to be able to be ambassadors, but they’re impeding their own career potential.”

“When we do communications plans, we don’t just socialize them with communications teams,” says Madia Logan, Boeing’s senior manager of communications and brand management. “We socialize them with the IT teams that are doing the work. They should understand how we’re going to talk about the program, to help them be on-message.”

A major corollary to the notion of the hallway ambassador is transparency. That means not burying your head in the sand when something goes wrong. Deliver explanations, timelines, and steps toward improvement — and apologies, when appropriate. As important (and fun) as it is to celebrate IT’s successes, we also have to own up to failures if we’re going to maintain credibility and build trust.

Transparency also means building trust by making people feel involved and invested. How can you make every IT team member an ambassador if you’re a black box organization whose vision and roadmap are known only by an anointed few? Appropriate transparency is empowering and engaging, both for your team members and your partners across the greater organization.

Communicating a vision

Today’s CIOs have a story to tell. They must change the old narrative and describe the art of the (newly) possible. A great leader rises to the occasion and shares a vision that inspires the entire organization. They assiduously cultivate their communication competency, that ability to put your people inside the cathedral you want to build before the first brick is laid.

A C-suite leader who excels at this is Claus Jensen, newly minted CTO of CVS Health, now a Fortune 5 company with the merger of CVS and Aetna. Claus communicates his vision across both internal and external channels.

Claus recently shared a video with his 500-person organization that articulates with authenticity and clarity their new mission to “Turn Vision into Action.” He’s also providing marketing training to his entire team so that they can succeed as ambassadors of the Office of the CTO. And he’s posting twice weekly on LinkedIn, speaking at premier CIO events, and is about to launch his next book.

If you’re an IT leader who feels like that level of communication skill is just out of reach, do what the best executives did when they were in your shoes: Seek training in public speaking and low-stakes ways to practice those skills, hire a communications lead or partner with your existing exec communications team, and devote time to shaping and sharing a compelling message.

Because these days, sharing the message is — well, not everything, but core to so much that the CIO does. From talent magnet to business partner to official face of IT, the CIO has to inspire and motivate. It’s how today’s leaders, and their businesses, win.

If you would like additional resources to help with your marketing and communications initiatives, please email me at I’d also like to hear about your communications successes and best practices, and what you are doing to move your org up the IT Maturity Curve.