Want to be taken seriously by the CEO? Here's how to get the conversation right

Do fix their iPhone, but don't talk about servers: building a good relationship with the big boss is vital for any IT chief.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
"If the CEO's iPhone stops working, he or she will assume this is the service everyone else is getting. Such failure does not set up a conversation for success," says former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks.
Image: iStock
CIOs might be top of the technology tree but the rest of the business sometimes struggles to understand that IT leaders can offer much more to the organisation than the effective maintenance of day-to-day technology operations.

CIOs have a unique opportunity to play a strong digital leadership role in the transformation of their businesses - but it means flipping long-held behaviours and beliefs about leadership and vision.

Getting the ear of the CEO is crucial to a change in perception. As the overall boss of the business, the CEO will play a crucial role in supporting - or scotching - an executive's change ideas. But a one-to-one management relationship with the CEO is still beyond the scope of many CIOs.

Recruitment specialist Harvey Nash says just under a third (32 per cent) of CIOs report directly to the CEO. While not all IT leaders report to the boss, many technology chiefs do have an input in boardroom discussions. Half of CIOs sit on their organisation's executive committee, according to the research.

Regardless of reporting line, CIOs must find a way to make the CEO buy into their vision for IT-led business change. So, how can IT leaders build a great relationship with the CEO? Four IT experts offer their views.

1. Get the simple stuff right

Mark Bramwell, CIO at Said Business School, says there is a lot of bluster about who makes the best IT leader for a business. "You don't necessarily need someone like Deloitte or Gartner to tell the CEO about the role of a CIO," he says. "It's not a one-size-fits-all situation. What CEOs must do is identify the right CIO for their particular organisation."

In many cases, Bramwell says the key to keeping the CEO happy for most IT leaders will be ensuring technology is up and ready. "You have to deliver a highly available service that doesn't get in the way of the business getting its job done," he says, which he recognises is not as straightforward as might appear.

"Being CIO can be a thankless task," says Bramwell. "Success is often about being transparent about the issues surrounding the business use of technology. For a CEO, the success of an IT leader can sometimes be measured in terms of the fact that technology systems and services are not on the rest of the business' radar."

And technology should be reliable, says Bramwell. "People around the rest of the organisation won't come in and praise you because systems work," he says. "But conversations with the rest of the organisation about change tend to go better when your existing technology just works."

2. Give honest assessments in two-way relationships

Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard reports directly to the firm's CEO and has the benefit of a strong management relationship. When it comes to maintaining effective engagement, Gerrard says successful two-way management relies on almost constant collaboration.

"It's all about regular communication," he says, suggesting update conversations with the CEO take place once a week, if not daily. Gerrard says such communication covers a broad range of areas. However, he makes sure every conversation has a strong business focus, especially in relation to the use of IT.

"Using technology will have consequences, so you need to be honest with your fellow executives," says Gerrard. "A heads-up that something might be about to go wrong is better than telling the CEO five days after an event. If I had one word of advice for CIOs looking to maintain a great relationship with their CEO, it would be simple: deliver."

3. Work out what makes your boss tick

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says that while most experts would suggest a textbook relationship between an IT leader and a CEO involves constant engagement and regular communication, it is the quality and relevance that matters more than frequency. And quality means a conversation about the organisation's business, rather than IT, performance.

Since plenty of CIOs still remain outside the CEO's direct reporting line, selecting when to approach the boss is critical. Each CIO, says Marks, will have to develop the type of relationship that works for them as an individual, for their CEO and for their organisation. The nature of the engagement will change over time, too.

"If you're a technically-minded IT leader, then you'll want a CEO who is tech-savvy. If you're a commercially-minded CIO, you'll want a CEO who is business-oriented. And if you're a customer-centric technology leader, then you'll want a CEO who talks the language of the customer. This ideal is rarely the case, so the CIO has to be adept at changing their approach to reflect what is at the core of their interests," says Marks.

"What really matters is that both executives have the energy and enthusiasm to understand what makes them and their organisation tick. Also, assume nothing. Don't forget that the CEO is also an end user. If the CEO's iPhone stops working, he or she will assume this is the service everyone else is getting. Such failure does not set up a conversation for success. Work out what matters to the CEO and address those concerns as quickly - and as often - as possible."

4. Find a supportive CEO

Ian Cox says a great chief executive provides air cover for the CIO. As well as understanding their issues and supporting their choices, the dream CEO backs the IT leader at the most opportune moments.

"CIOs should be driving change, but that's difficult and people will resist change," says Cox. "As an IT chief, you need assistance - and if the CEO supports you, your job will be much easier."

Cox recognises that relationships between senior leaders are not always straightforward. He says engagement with the executive team can be tricky. Most c-suite individuals will have a preconceived idea of technology leadership. And many executives will want to spend time with a traditional IT director, rather than someone responsible for pushing change in the business.

"Executives need to feel like they're getting something out of the conversation with the CIO, so give them information, research, and evidence," says Cox. "Don't talk about the strengths of the hardware or the capacity of the network. Show them you're a well-rounded individual with loads of interesting information that can help the business. Then, when you need to talk about IT, they'll be more prepared to listen and will be more engaged."

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