In the Dark

By Allen Bernard

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It's Friday afternoon and your boss, be it CEO, CFO, or COO, has just gotten back to the office from an unproductive trip to Tulsa. On the plane there was a "very interesting" (your boss's words) article on how company "X" increased revenues while saving millions by installing some new software package and he wants to know why "we" haven't done the same thing with the same results.

Of course, it being Friday, you were actually thinking about the kid's soccer tournament(s) or raking leaves or the tech show you're speaking at on Monday, and not really focusing on what your boss was thinking about on the plane from Tulsa. So, when he walked into your office you were somewhat blindsided by his request for an immediate response to the article he read.

What do you do?

A) Tell him to leave you alone and stop back on Wednesday. (Probably a bad idea -- remember the trip was unproductive to begin with.)

B) Tell him why the infrastructure can't support such an initiative because network bandwidth is already at capacity; not to mention you're in the process of consolidating data centers as well as wrapping up a Web services project that ties in all the company's vendors into your inventory-control databases (an initiative from the last article your boss read), etc., etc.?

C) Tell him to shove off. You're too busy to explain why his ideas won't work. (Probably a bad idea ... see option A.)

D) Request some time to review the article and see what it is company X actually did, what the technology is, etc. and that you'd like to schedule some time with him to review your findings later in the week after the tech show.

E) None of the above.

Well, according the experts, option D probably is your best bet. Opening lines of communication (if they don't exist already, in which case you exploit them) to the final line of company management is imperative if you are to be effective as a CIO these days.

If you were tempted to answer B, remember that all too often the C-level execs don't have the wherewithal (or desire) to really understand how IT works under the hood. What they are looking for are business answers to business problems. Network downtime is usually pretty meaningless to them unless you put in terms they understand such as no customer service or bottom-line cost per hour of downtime, said Linda Finkle of the Incedo Group, an executive coaching firm.

"A CIO is never going to be able to get though that barrier if they cannot demonstrate that there is special value to the organization," she said. "Unless they can demonstrate there is a business reasons for doing ("X") that we can all quantify to some extent, we're going to have an uphill battle."You also have to remember the type of person(s) you are dealing with, said Steven Katz, a former Clinton White House staffer, attorney and author of the book on dealing with executive management Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and Other Tough Customers.

Executives come in many different forms, but they share a common trait: They like to get things done. They are not all necessarily "Type A" individuals, but they all are driven in one way or another to succeed.

To communicate effectively with this type of person (and you are probably one as well) you need to understand what is motivating them to approach you about why or what your department is (or isn't) doing. Are they looking for more market share? Bottom-line growth? Cost control? Better worker productivity?

"That's what these guys are really looking for," said Katz. "They want things translated into effectiveness, reliability; they want to know that somehow the world is magically going to change and you have to tell them very specifically how this is going to make them successful in new ways."

Once you figure out why they want something, then you can start to address what they are really asking for. Relying on technical arguments with non-technical people seeking business solutions will probably get you nowhere, agreed John Baldoni, founder of Baldoni Consulting, an executive communications coaching firm and author of numerous books on communication skills.

To do this effectively, however, you, the CIO, must have a good understanding of the business your department is supporting. Without this you will locked into technical arguments that, as mentioned above, will probably fall on deaf ears and cause a glazing effect around the eyes.

"Tell it in real live terms," said Baldoni. "Sell the benefits. Describe the features but sell the benefits."

The good news is, if you are a CIO today, then you are in a better position than ever to accomplish this balancing act because chances are your background is not purely technical. You have some grasp of big-picture business issues and how IT works in that context to support the extended enterprise.

If opening lines of communication don't work with your boss, you might be in a tight spot, said Katz. If that is the case, then take a deep breath, don't take it personally and prepare to add some layers of skin. Your boss is probably riding roughshod over everyone anyway and may be just his or her way of dealing with the stresses inherent in selling more widgets.

They could also feel threatened by you because of your understanding of a world they cannot comprehend. A world that, increasingly, they are dependent upon for survival, said Katz.

Either way, you will have to explain things to him in business terms so it's probably best to blow the dust off of your old economics texts. If you do, your chances of lessening the stress of your job by lessening the stress of your boss's job will greatly improve.

And once the communication is flowing, keep it going no matter what, the experts agree.

Schedule regular meetings with the other C-levels to update everyone on IT's initiatives and progress; send out a quarterly, marketing-type brochure touting IT's accomplishments (OK, a memo might do just as well), put a ticker-type dashboard in the lobby that displays network uptime in terms of dollars ... anything that sends the message IT is working to support the company and not the other way around.