Failure to Communicate

Let’s face it, techies aren’t exactly known for their communication prowess. Unfortunately, the same goes for CIOs.

For decades, IT leaders emerged from super-technical backgrounds to find a seat at the executive table. Many of those CIOs (or whichever title they held before “CIO” was popularized) struggled to communicate their goals and visions to their business counterparts, making them the Rodney Dangerfield of the executive committee.
The pendulum swung in the late 1990s and early this decade, with CEOs seeking out more business-oriented executives to run IT shops. The downside: Those CIOs weren’t as technically versed as their predecessors, leaving a technological deficit at the leadership table.

Today, CEOs are seeking IT leaders who can speak in both business and technology terms. “In this world, you’ve got to be both,” said Eric J. Sigurdson, managing director and CIO practice leader with executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “You have to be technical and be ready to drill down at a moment’s notice. But you have to remain strategic and keep that seat at the table.”

Developing those hybrid skills is no easy task, though. There are plenty of intrinsic obstacles in the CIO’s quest to become a better communicator.

For one, there’s no clear track to the CIO perch. The pendulum used to swing toward techies, it swung back to the business-savvy, and now it sits somewhere in the middle. Look at the resumes of 10 CIOs today, and you’re bound to see a variety of career paths. And most of them didn’t involve much in the way of building strong communications chops. The IT pros that were lucky enough to rotate from IT to a business unit and back are probably the best trained in that regard, given their hands-on experience, and they may be the best suited to succeed as CIOs in today’s climate.
Second, too many IT organizations exist as order-taker cultures. If a company views its IT shop as a cost center or utility, then the “C” in CIO won’t be equal to the "C" in the CFO’s or CMO’s job title. In other words, those CIOs will be viewed as reactive–as opposed to proactive–business operatives. That means they probably don’t spend as much time in strategic planning meetings or collaborating with their executive peers, adding to the communication gap. If you put yourself in this category, don’t expect to advance much higher than you already have.

So what’s a CIO to do? Sigurdson says CIOs who reach out to their business partners tend to be viewed more positively. Reaching out means asking questions, truly delving into the needs of the business to determine the most pressing priorities.
Next, they have to put together a cohesive plan and then sell it to the executive suite in their language–value creation and business improvement, not bits and bytes.
IT managers aspiring to the CIO office should pay close attention to the current communications conundrum plaguing their bosses. If the hybrid business-technology expert is what CEOs are looking for, then the aspiring CIO must do whatever he or she can to get exposure to business operations and work closely with business-unit heads to learn their needs and respond quickly to them.

And go outside the norm. Think of new and innovative ways to mingle your team with the business, all while keeping one thing in mind: The company’s needs and wants are your master, not the technology that keeps it humming.

CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian Watson provides the CIO view in every issue of eWEEK. He can be reached at


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