How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot When Presenting to the Board

By Robert McGarvey

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Question: are you a propeller-head? It’s an honest question, but before answering know that your boss and the company’s board do not want to have sit-down sessions with a propeller-head who intends to review the minute details of a proposed new data center. What they want to know is how much money this data center will save, how it will improve workflow, and as for the rest, forget about it. Boring, boring, boring. At least that is what the board thinks.

“This is exactly where most CIOs go wrong in talking with senior management and the board,” said Ilya Bogorad, principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group and an expert in helping CIOs learn to talk to their bosses. “Talk technically, which is what most CIOs do, and the board will see you just as the senior IT guy, never as a decision-maker.”

“When technologists talk technology, you can see the room’s eyes pull back in their heads,” adds General Harry Raduege, a onetime armed forces CIO who now is an executive with Deloitte’s Center for Network Innovation.

Fred Mapp, author of Mapping Information Technology to Your Business, agrees: “Use lots of jargon and you will lose your audience.”

If mistake No.1 is stressing technology, mistake No.2 is entirely missing what interests senior management. Which is? “You need to talk in a language the leaders in your business understand and that means money,” adds Frank Modruson, CIO at global consulting firm Accenture. “I grew up loving technology, but as CIO, it has to be all about the business. I cannot let myself get enamored with new technologies. The question has to be: 'How does it help the company?' That is what my boss and the board want to hear.”

Listen up: mastering this stuff matters a lot to your career. Silicon Valley headhunter Nancy Albertini who often is asked to fill CIO jobs said Requirement One in her searches is “the client wants a CIO who understands their business. This has become so important, really only since 2000. But today it is crucial.” Just a decade ago, Albertini elaborates, CIOs who knew tech but had little grasp of the overall business probably were the norm. That just does not cut it anymore.

“Today, companies want a CIO who can sit at the executive table and understand what is going on. This transition has been very hard for some CIOs.”

Bottom line: moving up, even just getting a new gig may hinge on how persuasively a CIO projects a business image.

A Soldier's Course

As for getting there, General Raduege provides a roadmap that kept him on course when presenting to the nation’s senior military leaders—pretty much none of whom cared at all about technology because it's cool. “What I learned to do is put my presentations in operational terminology my audience understood and I never lost track of what mattered to them. Put presentations in their terms and they will listen.”

Adds Mapp: “Know the business’s objectives, state how the technologies will help get the business there, and you will hold your audience’s attention.”

Another tip for grabbing senior leadership’s attention: Go into meetings ready to talk about how you plan to manage costs, said Jeff Muscarella, managing partner at consulting firm NPI Financial. According to Muscarella, the savviest CIOs now are asking him for tips on spend management, working with procurement, and how to drive tight bargains while still delivering premium technology. And all this focus on managing the IT outlay is “new to most CIOs but it very much is what the board wants to hear,” said Muscarella.

If none of this sounds easy, relax, urges Kevin Kelly, CIO at the National Association of Social Workers. Kelly readily concedes that his senior management is about as uninterested in technology as you might guess and that means his is not necessarily easy sledding when he presents. The keys to succeeding are as simple as trial, error and persistence.

“You cannot take a class in communicating to your board,” he said. Maybe there are some, but they will not get the complexities of talking to your board, this time. And that is the CIO's challenge. Just be mindful of what is working, what isn’t, and build every future presentation on the successes of the past. “Learn what interests your senior leadership and be sure you are speaking to their concerns,” advises Kelly.

Want a fast summary of these ideas to use as your mantra when next a board-level presentation looms? General Raduege obliges: “Most people have no interest in technology.” In other words, technology does-not-matter, dollars do.

Memorize. Repeat.