Lessons for CIOs on How to Be a Great Communicator

Ann All

A common stereotype of technical types is folks who have a lot going on in their heads but may have trouble communicating it to others and who prefer the company of other techies to the company of non-techies. Sometimes the stereotype is true, based on my post citing my interview with Robert Austin, one of three authors of "The Adventures of an IT Leader." (You can read an excerpt of the book in IT Business Edge's Knowledge Network.) Austin told me:

The classic problem for a technical person is that, because you do feel expert in technical areas, in the moments that you should be going and being consultative with the CEO, your reflex is to go and hang with your team instead and help them solve the problem.

Yet communication is an important skill for a CIO, one that's getting a lot more attention these days. As Conrad Cross, CIO of the City of Orlando, Fla., and subject of my latest CIO Conversations interview, told me:

Communications skills are essential. You've got to be able to talk to all of the different departments and to know what they're doing.

An often-repeated bit of advice is to talk to business using language they can understand and appreciate. Abbie Lundberg posted a great interview with Steve Bandrowczak, former CIO at DHL, Lenovo and Nortel, on her Lundberg Media site that's packed with great advice on how to do this. I've pulled some of the key points, but encourage you to read the interview in its entirety. It's a bit long but well worth the time. From Bandrowczak's interview:


  • Understand the different groups you serve, so you can frame discussions around their goals and needs. This is the same point made by Cross in our interview. I've got some specific suggestions on speaking with CFOs in this post from March.
  • Use your knowledge of the business to establish baselines of how your company is doing related to the competition. Said Bandrowczak: "... In sales, if you know that the average revenue per head in your company is, say, $1 million per head, and you know the best in the industry is $4 million, then your CRM goal should be how do I triple my productivity, not how do I implement CRM. Big difference."
  • Involve IT staffers in your communications efforts. Consider dedicating an IT staffer to each business function to serve as a liaison between the function and IT. Since IT people like metrics, establish metrics around the effectiveness of communications.
  • Don't be arrogant. Said Bandrowczak: "... When you start with, 'I don't know anything, I'm humble, and each business day is something I can learn from customers, employees,' that's when you really understand the art of communication and can be most effective. When you have arrogance around, 'I've said it, therefore everyone must understand it,' you've got nothing but a lose/lose."
  • Look for opportunities to communicate, and make sure you do it often. Bandrowczak mentions annual newsletters, monthly achievement updates and "meet your customer" breakfasts designed to introduce IT staff to the business personnel they serve.


Jeff Kubacki, CIO of Kroll, a risk consulting subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan, who is mentioned in a Network World article, seems to have mastered those kinds of frequent communications. He sends weekly communications to each business unit, with status updates focused on the IT tasks most relevant to that unit. A monthly update sent to some 200 company managers.includes a column written by Kubacki, reports on technology projects in each business unit written by the IT staffers handling them, and facts ordinary users can appreciate, such as how many spam e-mail messages were blocked during the month. Another regular feature: a detailed rundown of the IT department's finances, with comparisons to budgeted amounts and the previous year's figures. Variations from the plan are tagged and explained.


In case you're wondering, Kubacki has a full-time assistant with a marketing background who assists him with these efforts. Kubacki feels so strongly about the importance of this communications role that he kept the assistant even when he was forced to make other staffing cuts.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 21, 2010 1:37 PM Patricia Wood Patricia Wood  says:

This is a great post. I am an IT person, but I also work in customer service. I have noticed that a lot of my co-workers are absolutely horrible at communicating with customers or clients because they do not have the skills needed to get personal and speak in less than technical terms. I graduated University with a degree in Communication, with a double major in English. i was lucky enough to gain some great skills through taking classes for my major, but I also grew up with a computer Engineer highly laden family so needless to say I am a computer nerd. I think it is rare to find people who can talk tech AND talk to humans while being personable and friendly. Great post!

Apr 28, 2010 9:26 AM Dan Hoffman Dan Hoffman  says:

Studies have shown that using visuals in communication is up to 6X more effective than words alone.  Especially when trying to explain complex subjects or in global organizations where English is not necessarily the primary language spoken.

I would encourage anyone interested in improving their communication effectiveness to research visual communication further.

Apr 28, 2010 10:22 AM Anon E. Mouse Anon E. Mouse  says:

I'd love to send this to my department's executive. Alas, it would get me fired. Great story and so very, very true.

Apr 28, 2010 1:20 PM manjunathan subramanian manjunathan subramanian  says:

Nice post.  What makes this post very interesting is the fact that you have provided examples that have worked and how each of these people made it happen.  I also like the references you have included in order to get more details like the interview with ex-CIO of DHL.

Apr 28, 2010 6:41 PM Roger Roger  says:

Great post, however, this is easily said than done. I suppose just like anything else, if you practice it over time you will get better at it.

Apr 28, 2010 7:26 PM Steve Steve  says:

One of the biggest "fails" in I.T. training (and Business Admin, too) is the utter absence of oral and written communication requirements. Working in marketing research presented me with an exceptional opportunity to sharpen my listening skill; few, if any, other IT people have that chance.

Many people who get into IT do so because they work better with things than with people. So it's going against type for many to be great communicators. Nevertheless, every chance I get, I steer IT people to Toastmasters and/or Dale Carnegie. And I'm going to keep pushing college IT departments to include interpersonal communication in their curricula.

Good for Kubacki, by the way. He obviously gets it.

Apr 29, 2010 8:46 AM Otieno Otieno  says:

well said Ann, but i tend to digress. the whole idea of communication according to me boils down to personality. for example, there are shy people    who have very good ideas but lack of self confidence kind of makes them incoherent and they tend to stutter and fumble a lot. on the other hand we find individuals with the gift of the garb but the issues they harbor do not bring any tangible contribution to the overall wellbeing to the organization.

   i tend to believe that to get the best of both worlds we as professionals should be less subjective and more attentive during a session with a colleague or a superior and at the same time take confidence building courses and communication skill training to match.

May 11, 2010 11:26 AM Carol Nwachukwu Carol Nwachukwu  says:

I think we all need to relate to people the way they are and with great understanding of individual differences.


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