For years, CIOs have been fighting the stereotype that they’re weak communicators, unable to speak the language of business or relate to anyone outside of IT. But by using practiced communication skills, many CIOs are proving how convincing, credible and captivating they can be—in the boardroom and on the Web. (For evidence, check out blogs by British Telecom’s JP Rangaswami, Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center CIO John Halamka and Mike Schaffner, the director of IT for Cameron International’s valves and measurement group.)
Indeed, CIOs’ communication skills—their ability to negotiate, build consensus, engage stakeholders and make business cases—have improved dramatically since the days they were in charge of data processing. Yet they still slip up occasionally, lapsing into acronym soup or erring on the side of hyperbole to sell an IT investment.
Such communication mistakes can impede CIOs’ effectiveness on the job or hinder their relationships with staff and other functional executives. Craig Blad, a former SVP and CIO of North Star Financial who’s currently seeking a new CIO role, says poor or jargon-filled communication creates misunderstandings between CIOs and fellow executives. If a CIO can’t speak to the business value of a project, he says, it will never get approval.
In some cases, communication blunders can do serious damage to a CIO’s reputation and career, since they reinforce those negative, geeky stereotypes about CIOs.
“Every time you screw up, you come off as less polished and less prepared,” says Peter Kretzman, an IT consultant and former CIO and CTO. “When you descend into jargon or ‘the-sky-is-falling,’ you come across as not as capable, and that does damage to your career and to your department. It makes management think, ‘We need to get someone in here who can talk to us and let us know what’s really going on.'”
Here are 10 communication mistakes common among CIOs. Be aware of them so that you can avoid making them.
1. They speak in jargon.
Using technical jargon when speaking to coworkers outside of IT is the most obvious and most common mistake IT professionals at all levels make. The use of jargon is an example of a broader communication mistake IT leaders make: not being aware of where their knowledge ends and where the knowledge of the person they’re trying to communicate with begins, says Abbie Lundberg, president of communications consultancy Lundberg Media and former editor-in-chief of CIO magazine.
“It’s easy for people with specialized knowledge, like technologists, to communicate in a way that assumes an insider’s understanding,” she says. “Technologists in particular need to be very, very conscious of this.”
2. They complain about technical problems.
Stephen Laster, CIO of Harvard Business School, remembers a talking-to he got from one of his bosses early on in his leadership career. He had just come from a meeting where he carried on before his peers about the technical problems his team was having inside a data center and how they were working so diligently to resolve them.
“All my peers were hearing was some foreign language,” says Laster. “I was bringing them too deeply inside my organization. What they gleaned [from the meeting] was ‘Stephen’s really got a lot of problems.’ The best I could do in that conversation was make them nervous.”
Laster says his boss approached him after the meeting and explained to him that bringing his peers outside of IT into the nuts and bolts of IT’s challenges only worried them and made them question their confidence in him. “It’s not that you shouldn’t bring your problems to us,” Laster recalls his boss telling him, “but you should do it in a language we understand with a set of questions and alternatives we can help collaborate on.”
3. They speak like sales people.
Kretzman, who also authors the blog, CIO/CTO Perspectives, has seen executives with business backgrounds who move into IT leadership positions and address their new IT staffs as if they were sales people. They take a boosterish, let’s go get ’em approach to rallying their new staffs, which falls flat, he says, because technical people aren’t motivated that way.
“If I talked like that to my team, I would be met with derision, people leaving [the meeting], rolling their eyes, tuning out, or opening their laptops and BlackBerrys,” says Kretzman. “You have to speak to people in their own way.”
4. They drop the F-bomb.
Four-letter words may make you sound tough on the field, in a bar or in the ‘hood, but in the office, using them makes you look like, well, an ass. It can also get you fired. Kretzman has seen it happen.
He recalls one of his first meetings as CTO of a company that had never previously had a CTO. The individual then running IT for the organization was a “young kid” who Kretzman says had risen up the technical ranks. In a meeting with Kretzman and about six other project managers, the young IT director told Kretzman and the project managers, “What you need to do is go upstairs to the business and tell them to go f*&$ themselves,” remembers Kretzman, who says this kind of talk was typical of the young Turk.
Adds Kretzman: “That person left nine days later as a result of [people’s] reactions to his behavior.”
5. They fail to ask questions.
“Great CIOs ask meaningful questions and really listen to the answers,” says Lundberg.
Asking astute questions is critical to the CIO’s job for three reasons. It elicits critical information and insights, engages the CIO’s audience and helps them build relationships with their peers, she says.
“The reason a lot of people in IT don’t do this,” adds Lundberg, “is because they’re afraid to look like they don’t already have the answers.”
6. They impose their brilliant ideas on everyone without building buy-in.
CIOs are confident in their ideas on the best technologies to implement and the best ways to implement them—and for good reason: Most have the domain expertise and battle scars to back them up.
But sometimes they’re so confident in their ideas that they ram them down everyone’s throats, from their staff to their executive-level peers, without building consensus. They think, ‘I’m the CIO; I know best,’ without realizing how important it is for people to feel they’re part of the solution.
Harvard Business School CIO Laster says he made this mistake when his IT department was considering a large platform implementation and the architectural strategy to support it. Laster knew his approach was the right approach so he forged ahead with it without giving his team the time to get on board with his approach.
The result: “We lost a couple of months in the process because I didn’t create the buy-in I should have early on,” he says. “We backtracked and revisited why we were doing the work, and the project ended up well. The lesson learned is that collaboratively getting to the ‘why’ is in many cases more important than the ‘what.'”
7. They use scare tactics to sell ideas.
When trying to explain why certain technology investments need to be made, some CIOs err on the side of hyperbole and oversimplification to make their points clear to business executives who don’t understand IT, says Kretzman. For example, to get funding for new hardware, some IT executives might say something like, “We’re going to get killed unless we buy 10 new servers tomorrow!”
The problem with this exaggerated approach, Kretzman says, is that it raises businesspeople’s hackles and makes them feel like IT is selling them a bill of goods. Instead of going to a business meeting with one technical solution in mind, Kretzman advises IT professionals to present a few potential solutions, with their pros and cons, to the business. He also recommends focusing on the facts that matter most to the business: the financial impact, business impact and customer impact.
“Bring businesspeople into the decision so they can evaluate the trade-offs,” he says.
8. They over-rely on facts.
While facts are critical to any IT investment presentation, CIOs shouldn’t over-rely on them, says Lundberg. CIOs who don’t have as much credibility as other executives inside their companies will often fall back on fact-based, analytical presentations when they’re making a business case for an IT investment, she says. That’s a mistake, she adds, because moving people to action requires an emotional connection.
“What they really need to do,” advises Lundberg, “is tell a story and capture the imagination of the people they’re trying to convince. Fundamentally, any time we’re trying to move someone’s opinion, it’s a kind of selling. That’s something that CIOs who have come up through technology might have more trouble with.”
9. They don’t adequately explain IT value.
Every CIO knows that her duty is to explain the value of IT in business terms, but sometimes those specific business terms are hard to articulate.
“A lot of times when CIOs and some of their peers at the executive level talk about their technology, they’re just a step removed from what the ultimate value is,” says Lundberg.
For example, they may say, “We’re able to gain this particular insight because we have these business intelligence tools that let us get at this information,” Lundberg says. But, she adds, they need to take that explanation one step further and explain how that insight will make a difference to the business: This is how it will help the company sell more products or serve its customers better.
10. They put audiences to sleep with PowerPoint.
“People use PowerPoint so badly,” laments Lundberg. Too many slide decks are filled with bullet point after bullet point and present too much information, she says. Effective PowerPoint presentations focus an audience around what the presenter wants them to consider or learn.
Lundberg advises CIOs to consider whether PowerPoint is the most effective way to communicate their message, or if they should find another way to deliver it. For example, she says, “A dramatic demonstration of something (e.g., how a new customer service system works) is way more powerful than a deck full of bullet points.”
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.