Do you know how to talk the talk?: Communications tips for tech managers

CIO Strategies: Building relationships is the key to success for many executives. Here's how to build bridges with staff and the rest of the business.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Gartner's recently released annual CIO survey says modern IT leaders spend more time on the business elements of their jobs compared with three years ago. In fact, CIOs from top-performing organisations spend up to four days more on executive leadership than other IT leadership peers.

Technology chiefs, therefore, must reach out and collaborate with business peers, but what is the key to cooperating effectively and creating a working balance between departmental requirements and business demands? Three IT leaders give their best practice advice for successful communication.

1. Develop deep relationships with business

Juan Perez, CIO at logistics specialist UPS, recognises digital transformation is key to modern businesses competitiveness, but he also knows that language can be a barrier to success. Even in an era where systems and services can be bought on-demand, the implementation of technology is still synonymous with complex terms and processes.

Perez warns technology leaders that business partners will not have the patience for technical details. "Being an IT professional is one of the most demanding positions in the modern business," he says.

"You need to be technically qualified to do the job but you also need to be able to take the complexity of the solutions you build for the organisation and convey the benefits in business terms. Today, more than ever before, IT professionals -- particularly those who lead technology departments -- need to be able to relate to the business."

Perez says modern CIOs must boast excellent communication skills. They should operate as if they are part of the business, not running a separate IT function. Most of all, IT professionals need to engage with their line-of-business peers in ways that make them feel welcome and supported.

To this end, Perez has focused on developing what he refers to as a "business intimate" IT department, where a close working relationship between all workers is promoted and fostered.

"I'm fortunate to be part of the C-level management committee at UPS. I have a seat at the top table - my boss, the CEO, wants me to be part of everything we run at the company, from mergers and acquisitions, to strategy and on to marketing. He sees the value that IT brings to the boardroom," says Perez.

Not all IT leaders will be afforded such a privileged position, and Perez says CIOs who are given a seat on the board must take advantage of that position. "Be a catalyst and demonstrate the art of the possible. Continue to ensure that the company's technology priorities are visible to all," he says.

2. Create moments of conversation with your team

Like Perez, Tarah Lourens, who was recently made group CTO at payday loan specialist Wonga, says a strong connection with her c-suite peers is essential. She stresses how IT leaders who achieve their goals focus on ensuring the rest of the organisation understands the business benefits of digital transformation.

"If I look at my success, and the feedback I receive, I think the ability to talk seriously and to have a voice at the top table really matters," she says. "You need to be able to communicate and to translate technology into business terms."

However, strong bonds with the board are not the only criteria for success. Lourens says the ability to translate IT into business terms has always been a key characteristic of successful technology chiefs. The element that is sometimes overlooked is the strength of the bond with people back in the IT department.

"I think it's increasingly crucial that you can speak to your IT team at a personal level," she says. "You need to be approachable and you need to create moments of conversation. I meet everyone in my team. I do a full cycle every three months where I sit down one-to-one with each person in the department."

Lourens is a big advocate for agile working methodologies. She uses these techniques to help run retrospectives with her team, where colleagues talk openly about their gripes and she talks about her concerns. Lourens says close interaction means that, even when she is sitting in the boardroom, she is still very much part of the team.

"You don't want other people in your department to just see you as a person that sets the strategy and gives big presentations. You need to be able to have frank and open conversations, so that your team feels they can talk with you about their key concerns," she says.

'That openness drives empowerment and really makes your people feel as though they own a part of the business. So, for me, internal communication is more important than anything. As a CIO, you can't achieve anything without your team."

3. Become a master of simultaneous translation

A large proportion of leadership literature suggests CIOs must focus on line-of-business engagement. Yet Renaud de Barbuat, group CIO at retail giant Carrefour, also says technology chiefs must not forget the importance of internal communication. While translating IT in business terms matters, so does a clear explanation to technology peers.

IT leaders, says de Barbuat, must excel in "simultaneous translation". CIOs must explain the value of technology in relation to broader organisational objectives and then talk to their IT team about how they will create the right technical structure to achieve these business goals.

"In a way, it's like two sides of the same coin -- on one side is business and on the other is IT," says de Barbuat. "CIOs simply must be great at translating technology challenges into business terms and vice versa."

The CIO role is a complex job, says de Barbuat, who believe an IT chief must be a visionary, a project manager and a specialist in operational excellence. He says managing a team to achieve a complete end-to-end approach from vision to execution is a significant challenge.

"In many ways, the modern CIO is like an internal CEO role -- and it's a job I really enjoy. It's exciting because we're at the heart of digital transformation. When you enjoy a combination of business challenges and team play, it's a strongly motivating role," says de Barbuat.

"IT innovation also plays a key role in our business strategy and the store of the future potentially involves a broad range of technologies, from image recognition, to voice interaction and onto robotics, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. It's hugely interesting and exciting to see the world of opportunities for modern retailers."

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