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Communication skills are among the top factors determining whether the CIO will lead business transformation or be relegated to just keeping the lights on.

Communication is a Top Obstacle

When asked for the biggest strengths of the stereotypical CIO, would you quickly shout “communication?” How about the greatest weaknesses? Would communication pop into your mind then?

Communication skills have typically been a huge obstacle for the CIO and the IT organization. Business leaders are instantly turned off by techno-speak and acronyms. Using technical language outside of the IT organization is like speaking a foreign language that your audience doesn’t understand. Sure, some people may follow you, but most will not. And they will not want to engage any further.

The non-technical CIO has a huge advantage – if he or she can communicate well.

“Business” is the language of businesspeople. “IT” is not their language. The non-technical CIO probably won’t be tempted to use technical terms and IT acronyms when communicating with colleagues. And they are very unlikely to justify technology investments based on technical improvements but, rather, based on measurable business impact. Nobody cares that the storage device is 100 times faster. They care that the customer experience will improve because they can process transactions more quickly, and that translates to more revenue.

Businesspeople want to know what time it is, not how the watch was built.

And when we communicate effectively, IT earns trust, credibility, and respect – the fuel to navigate the IT Value Journey.

What to Communicate and with Whom

We share information with different audiences in different ways. The CIO can share project details with the IT team or project team but is likely to share, perhaps, the status of critical milestones and the budget with the executive team or Board. The conversations may be around the exact same project, but the information shared is relevant to the audience.

There are countless messages that the CIO must share. Project status, budget, human resource issues, and more will consume a large proportion of the CIO’s communications. I’d like to focus on some of the less practiced but most valuable communications. We’ll put these in a few buckets:

  • IT Strategy
  • IT Value
  • Business Risk

IT Strategy

IT Strategy must be developed and communicated in support of the broader business strategy. There should be nothing in the IT strategy that doesn’t support the broader business strategy. It’s up to the CIO to make the connection and express the alignment in terms that can be understood by the IT team, across the business, and with the executive team and Board.

IT Strategy must also be expressed in terms of measurable goals. You must articulate, specifically, how your strategic objectives will increase revenue, reduce costs, improve the customer experience, or mitigate risk. The latter should be translated into revenue or costs.

IT Value

IT Value is a lagging extension of the IT Strategy communication. The CIO needs to demonstrate revenue gained and costs reduced as a result of work that IT has done. Perhaps most important, and most challenging for many, is to demonstrate the value created by major projects. That means the executive sponsor must commit to the revenue gain or cost savings prior to project initiation and IT must track the costs of delivering the project. Assuming amortization of capital resources (e.g., programmers and other staff as well as capital equipment) you should be able to work with the sponsor and Accounting to measure the ongoing value of the project. Quarter after quarter and year after year, is the project still delivering the value that was committed at the onset? The annual value minus the amortized cost equals the value that IT has created.

IT Value can also be measured by improvements in customer satisfaction at continuously reduced costs, and the risks mitigated by detecting and remediating cyber threats faster and faster as time goes on. A final measure of IT Value is the cost per feature delivered, and the time to deliver, which should both continuously improve.

IT Value may be the most important metric the CIO reports. It also creates accountability with project sponsors, which ultimately strengthens the partnership among IT and the rest of the business. And that’s what earns IT the trust, credibility, and respect to play a transformational role in the business.

Business Risk

Priority One Incidents, while we hope are few and far between, provide a great opportunity for IT to earn trust, credibility, and respect. A Priority One Incident is anything that puts the business at risk. It may be CRM system crash, a major telecommunications outage, a natural disaster, or countless other events.

Priority One Incidents are your chance to shine. You can hide the event and that will spell disaster. You can address the incident and not say anything until it’s resolved. That will cause people to make up their own stories – and they won’t be good. Or you can communicate broadly and immediately. And communicate every hour with updates, even if there is no update. You may also hold a call with the executive team every couple of hours.

Lack of communication during a Priority One incident causes the rest of the business to lose confidence in IT. Effective communication creates trust, credibility, and respect.

A Story

I inherited the CIO role for a large division of a Global 500 company. IT had many challenges and was thought of across the business as the “helpless desk.” We set out on our IT Value Journey and were rapidly fixing IT.

One day we had a major telecommunication outage – a Priority One Incident. We couldn’t blast and email or voicemail across the company, so we had to send people door to door to advise the entire office of what was going on.

One of my team members walked into an executive office feeling like a boxer that needed to put his arms up in front of his face to protect himself from an incoming punch. He quickly and concisely explained the situation to the executive, waiting to get severely scolded. Instead, the executive said, “Thanks for letting me know. I trust IT to fix it and get us back in business.”

Trust IT? He didn’t believe his ears. He smiled and walked out of the office with a new sense of pride. And then promptly ran back to my office to relay the message.

We knew, right then, that IT had navigated along the IT Value Journey. We were no longer the helpless desk and were now trusted as a partner. Sure, we fixed a lot along the way. But it was our ability, and willingness, to communicate the good and the bad that earned us the trust, credibility, and respect from the rest of the business.

That IT team went on to play a truly transformational role for that business and our industry.


This is the final article in our Leadership Guide for the Non-Technical CIO. The six leadership skills that we emphasized include:

  1. Rally the team around a vision
  2. Develop and execute strategy
  3. Delegate
  4. Measure
  5. Coach
  6. Communicate

You can see the full series on our Quick Find page.

We value your feedback and encourage you to email your thoughts, and wishes for future topics, to Emily@WolffStrategy.com. And I enjoy speaking with so many of our readers and encourage you to continue to reach out. Email Emily@WolffStrategy.com and she’ll be happy to schedule a call with me.

larry wolff

Larry Wolff is the founder & CEO of Wolff Strategy Partners, a boutique consulting firm specializing in Enterprise Strategy Management and Digital Transformation. Larry has served as CEO, COO, CIO, CTO, chief digital officer, and management consultant for public, private, international, and emerging growth companies. His specialties include corporate and IT strategic planning, technology led business transformation, business and IT turnarounds, merger integration and large-scale project rescues. His methodologies span industries and scale to companies of all sizes.

LWolff@WolffStrategy.com                     https://WolffStrategy.com

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