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Lessons for CIOs on How to Be a Great Communicator

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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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