Brave, honest, authentic: Why it's time tech pros had an image makeover

Personal communication and branding tips for IT professionals and CIOs.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

IT professionals - so the stereotype suggests - are not renowned for their communication skills. Industry experts offer their top tips on how CIOs can present a brighter, clearer view of their individual strengths.

1. Focus on being genuine and authentic

Fomer CIO and digital advisor Ian Cohen recognises IT has an image problem in some businesses. More worryingly, perhaps, Cohen says it is still not unusual to come across non-IT executives at such organisations who wear their lack of awareness regarding technology as a badge of honour.

"That's like being proud that you don't understand vocabulary or grammar," he says. "Technology is absolutely fundamental to every business, regardless of size or sector. Being unaware, or being proud of being unaware of technology is simply not an option."

For CIOs looking to boost their personal brand, Cohen says there are two defining characteristics of great leaders: being genuine and being authentic. "Say what you're going to do and do what you say you're going to do," he says. That authenticity should extend across all platforms, including online networks.

"If you're not comfortable on social media, and you're tweeting due to peer pressure, people will see through it - people will see you're not genuine," says Cohen. "If you can't write an interesting blog post, don't do it. If you're thoughtful and considerate, be that person. Make sure you find areas that genuinely interest you and major on these concerns."

2. Take a tight grip on the digital agenda

Chris Chandler, head of the CIO practice at recruitment specialist La Fosse Associates, sees a lot of potential leadership candidates. And when it comes to personal branding, he has some good news for CIOs. "Things are definitely getting better," he says.

Such improvements cannot come too soon. Chandler says that the CIO brand is not particularly strong when compared to other C-suite positions. Worse still, CIOs face pressure from their digitally focused peers. "The CDO brand is currently very strong. It's revenue- and market-facing, meaning the position is seen as being important to how the organisation works," he says.

Chandler says the necessity of dealing with back office concerns means the CIO position is considered less sexy. "The traditional world of IT operations is more like a cost centre and far removed from the core of crucial business concerns," he says. But there is hope - and CIOs looking to boost their brand should look to own the digital space.

"The fact that, in some cases, the confluence of technology and marketing is leading to the creation of the CDO role is recognition of a problem with the CIO brand. IT leaders must seize the opportunity and deliver digital transformation," says Chandler.

3. Pick an interest that feels comfortable

Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks has simple advice for IT leaders in regards to creating a personal brand. "Be consistent," he says. "Create a reaction, prompt a question and be known for something."

For the past few years, Marks has focused his brand around the value of IT. When he meets people or talks at events, he is keen to explain how the business use of technology is all about its impact on the bottom line. "I focus on how technology can make people more efficient and, therefore, more valuable to an organisation," he says.

Evidence suggests that concentrating on an individual brand works. An associate of his met a fellow IT leader who referred to Marks as 'the value guy'. "That suits me," says Marks, reflecting on the experience. "People need to be recognised for what they stand for."

When it comes to best practice advice for other CIOs, Marks says IT leaders must pick a brand that feels comfortable. "Don't be scared of your talent. You have to go with something that excites and interests you. If you're technology-focused, be the IT expert," he says.

4. Reduce the risks by being explicitly honest

National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan says empowered executives are ruthlessly honest. "Analysing the risks and potential failures helps you build real credibility with both your team and your boss," she says.

Flannigan sends out a weekly update to every employee in the Trust. The updates tell people which projects are going well and - more importantly, perhaps - which are going badly. "I am explicitly honest," she says. "I have always been like that. It's so important in business to state the risks and to be brave enough to talk about making changes."

The approach is extended to the very top. Flannigan meets regularly with the organisation's board of trustees, one of whom said the following recently: "There's only one risk that matters to me - and that's having the wool pulled over our eyes." Flannigan's open approach ensures such risk is minimised.

"If you're honest and brave, the risk is reduced and the management board can work together," she says. "Be incredibly goal-focused and think about what the business is really trying to achieve. Every week, I sit down and think about our priorities and how we're going to achieve those outcomes."

5. Take the conversation out to people across the business

"Whether the news about technology is good or bad, or easy or hard, you should always go out and talk to people," says Iglo Foods Group CIO Sarah Leslie.. "Don't be afraid to ask people for their help, too - no one knows all the answers."

Being open, in short, will help the rest of the business to build a better impression of the work of the IT department. "Technology is so integrated into the organisation now, whether that's in terms of someone using or implementing systems," she says.

"IT professionals aren't the only people with good ideas. If you need a workaround, ask people to help. When other people are involved in the process, they are much more likely to see the benefits in what you're doing.

"So take the conversation out to end users and give people choices. CIOs shouldn't act as the guardian of technology decisions; they should help people exploit digital opportunities and they should demonstrate what opportunities exist for the business."

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