Top CIOs Say Communication the Key to Their Success

by Bates, Suzanne Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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I gave the opening keynote at the CIO 100 Summit, where the top technology innovators in the country are being recognized by CIO Magazine. Our conversation was about the importance of becoming a motivational leader. The reception was so overwhelmingly positive that I had to write about it. Dozens of CIOs sought me out after the talk and at lunch to remark about how it resonated. In times like these they’ve realized they need to ramp up their communications.

What got everybody in the room buzzing was an exercize where we talk about what we’re passionate about. This is so important. If a leader isn’t passionate, if he or she doesn’t model the passion, how can others be expected to come to work and give 110%? You inspire people when you are motivated yourself. Think about it. At one time you’ve worked for someone who inspired you. Their energy was contagious. They took a personal interest in you and your success.

What are the top communication challenges that CIOs are talking about right now? Here’s an unscientific list which I assembled this afternoon after several interesting conversations with these senior IT executives:

Communication Challenge #1: Getting agreement among executives about priorities

In times like this technology organizations are being asked to innovate and come up with ways to do more with less. They’ve been successful in finding more efficient productive ways to do things. However, now there are still limited dollars and many demands on the resources of IT organizations. The CIO or technology leader must be asking the right questions of the CEO, board and colleagues, and also communicating clearly about what they’re hearing are the priorities.

Communication Challenge #2: Inspiring the team

Most companies are still reeling from the loss of talented IT and technical people who were contributors. Those who are left miss their “mates” and are also working harder than ever before. At the same time, these CIOs say that salaries and bonuses are not significant tools in motivation right now. Instead, they know they need to inspire their teams by praising, recognizing and rewarding their accomplishments, and by getting them involved in exciting projects that will make an impact on the business.

Communciation Challenge #3: Finding time to communicate

CIOs know that they need to carve out more time to communicate with their directs, with the skip level below them, and with the entire organization. This means preparing well-thought out presentations that paint a big picture vision of the future. This approach is the best way to get people on the same page, and foster a culture of people who are brainstorming, collaborating and innovating. When I asked for a show of hands, the vast majority said they need to spend more time and energy communicating with their teams than ever before,. Jeff Neufeld, former CIO at Fidelity, also noted that you’ll find time if you simply make it a business priority.

Communication Challenge #4: Developing greater skill

While most CIOs can give a good basic presentation, communicating as motivational leaders requires much more. This is why coaching is growing as a profession; leaders are recognizing they need to have personal, one-on-one guidance. Several told me stories about coaches who had really helped them. When developing communication skill, the areas where leaders need to focus go beyond presentation skill courses; we’re talking about articulating a big idea, painting word pictures, telling great stories, speaking conversationally and coming across as authentic and natural in front of high stakes audiences. CIOs know even in a technical field they must convey passion and intensity when they stand up to speak. We saw several examples today of leaders like Ramon Baez, VP of IT and CIO at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, and Tom Conophy, CIO, Intercontinental Hotels Group. Both were master story tellers who used humor and examples to drive their points home and connect with their audiences.

Communication Challenge #5: Raising their visibility

While many of these leaders are C-level executives, remarkably, a large percentage do not have a seat at the executive table. Some report to the CFO; others do not have the ear of a CEO who sees technology like “maintenance” as the “stuff that just needs to be done” rather than partners in innovation. These technology leaders need to become passionate advocates for their big ideas and communicate frequently with all of their important audiences, developing greater networks of influence through formal and informal communication. In addition, it is clear that CIOs must also build name recognition outside their companies not only as career “insurance” but also to create a path to the next exciting challenge.