Technology is a key element of any modern business today and is often seen as critical to success – and failure. However, articulating the best way to harness technology to the most senior members of any organisation takes a lot more than technical expertise.
I have had the great privilege of working with many IT experts during my career. I have witnessed brilliance first hand in many back offices, where technical gurus have solved problems, created incredible solutions and toiled through the night to ensure that systems keep working. Often this hard work and tenacity goes un-noticed and un-appreciated. Many within the organisation are oblivious to the geniuses that walk amongst them.
Without the ability to articulate their value and their ideas to the most senior leaders in the organisation, this work can become invisible and undervalued. It is absolutely essential that the technology leaders understand this and work out ways to craft the message effectively for each intended receiver.
Having had the great fortune of leading several IT teams and software development teams, I believe that there are some critical elements to understand in communicating the benefit of technology. I am the first to admit that I am no technical expert, as my own skills in technology are pretty average – however, the leader does not need to be a technical expert. They need to understand business and how technology provides return on investment. They also need to be able to communicate effectively to their audience.
Communicating to the CEO and the Board
An effective leader understands that communication is key in achieving success and leading others through change. However, it is not a one size fits all approach. You need to understand your audience and ensure that your communications are suitable for their needs.
Before you communicate to a CEO or the Board, I believe that you need to understand a few basic concepts and how these relate to technology:
- Business strategy
- Return on investment
If you are going to lead technology and engage with the CEO or Board, you need to understand key business concepts and use the correct language and terms.
You also need to understand the concept of speaking or writing in a concise manner, and removing excessive technical detail. Typically the most senior people in any organisation will have constraints on their time, so delving into a lot of detail (unless you have been asked to do so) will cause some friction.
I think it also helps to understand that your audience are typically very intelligent and experienced (although I have seen some exceptions to this rule!) and they dislike feeling ignorant. It is always best to provide a brief overview of any concept, rather than asking them if they understand that concept. No one likes to feel stupid, and if they have to continually respond by saying “no”, the meeting is not going to engender positive feelings from your audience!
Communication strategies for CEOs and the Board
If you have the opportunity to speak to the CEO or the Board, you must make that time count. Before you get in the room, ensure that you have done your research (on both the organisation and the individuals) and that you are prepared.
Once you are in front of your audience, keep these key points in mind:
Get to the point quickly
Although it is tempting to take them through the background, they will want you to cut to the chase. So make sure that you start with your key points and why it is important that they listen to you. This could be because you have a way to increase revenue, retain or attract customers, or you have a solution to a considerable risk to the business. They need to know up front why they should listen to you, so don’t waste precious time on a lot of detail at the beginning.
Do not use excessive technical terms
Assume that your audience does not understand the technology, so strip out the technical terms and keep it simple. Obviously, if they are technically savvy they may ask you a lot of detailed questions. So, you should be prepared to delve into technical detail if required. Generally, I have found this to be an exception to the rule. I have only come across one exceptional CFO (who was also an Acting CEO) who was technically advanced enough to do this.
Talk about return on investment
This is a very important concept to understand. Generally, when you are asking for investment in technology, you are typically talking significant numbers. So, you need to be able to articulate why this is important for the business. Responding with “you just need to do this” or “everyone else is doing this now” is not adequate. You need to be able to concisely respond with how this investment will impact the business and how you will measure the return. Sometimes, it is as simple as articulating the risk of not making the investment.
Understand the business not just the technology
You need to have a good understanding of the business and how technology relates to the big picture. What is the overall strategy of the business and how will technology contribute to that? Being able to relate to the key aspects of the strategy will ensure that your communication is much more effective.
Use different communication mediums
When communicating, you must remember that your audience will have different backgrounds and different preferences for how they learn or digest information. Some will prefer facts and figures. Others will prefer graphics and visual diagrams.
It always useful to use context and appropriate analogies where possible. I have often found that articulating an example in a quick story will engage your audience and reinforce your message. Painting a picture can work wonders when you are presenting technical material to any audience.
Always ensure that you listen carefully for feedback and accept any critique with good grace. Always be professional in your demeanour and try your very best not to be defensive if your ideas are not immediately accepted. Sometimes, depending on the CEO or Board, it may take time or several presentations for an idea to be approved. If you truly believe in what you are presenting, don’t give up. In one organisation, I found that I had to sell some key investments in technology over extended periods of time (i.e. years) – however, they were eventually approved.
It is important to finish any interaction with the CEO or Board on a positive note. Remember to say “thank you” and remember to maintain poise throughout the meeting. Physically, this means that you should pay attention to your posture, make good eye contact and smile!
Technology is important and is fast becoming the responsibility of every senior manager, CEO and Board. Technology leaders who can help everyone understand the benefits of embracing technology are vital. Typically those who are successful at this exhibit an intrinsic understanding of the business and how technology can be a strategic advantage.