IT Leaders Guide for Making Effective Board Presentations

For any company executive, fronting up to a board meeting and presenting is a daunting challenge. You work hard all year but the board sees you only a couple of times during that time. You have to package everything you do in a brief presentation. CIOs have an additional challenge. Boards are rarely interested in technology. They don’t understand the jargon.

If you don’t present well or fail to engage the board, it does not matter how efficient you are or how good your proposal is. Worse, a poor impression may even derail a career. In such an environment engaging effectively with boards, making good impressions and getting that funding request approved can be a major challenge.
Over my career, I had to present to the boards several times in different companies. This article, based on my experience and that of colleagues, aims to offer guidance to CIOs and other IT executives who want to win the board game.

Role of the board of directors

Before starting to put together a board presentation, it is important to understand the role of company board of directors. The board chooses the chief executive and approves the appointment of senior executives. The board’s role is to direct and control the company. The board must understand how proposed actions will impact the company’s performance.  Direction setting includes overseeing strategic planning and major decisions. The control function requires that the board watch the company activities, systematically managing risks and compliance.

In short, the board is focused strategic planning, major decisions, performance monitoring, risk management and senior management capability.  Typically, the boards don’t get involved in the details of execution, which is the responsibility of the CEO. Hence the board has to be satisfied with the ability of the CEO and his leadership team.
Every interaction with the board is an opportunity to show that you are a capable business leader; they can trust your judgement and have confidence in your ability to lead and execute. If the board trusts your business judgement, you will have greater influence and your recommendations will be viewed favorably  It’s an opportunity to shine but there is also the real risk of revealing your weaknesses. This just emphasises the importance of the interaction. The challenge becomes even more acute as a typical IT executive may only get one or two opportunities to get in front of the board. Typically board presentations are only 15 to 30 minutes or less. As a result, it is vitally important to get it right.
Board presentations fall into three categories.

  1. First is the ‘state-of-the-union’. Here an executive is giving an annual update for the business unit.
  2. Second is a ‘request for approval’ for a new project or initiative.
  3. Third is the ‘please explain’. The board wants more information on an issue / risk or event that could impact on business performance.

Board members are generally not technology literate. For technology investments, the CIO needs to show how the technology would improve business performance e.g. customer service, profits, revenues, compliance etc. They want to know if the benefits from the new initiative exceed the technology and implementation risks. The CIO has to satisfy the board that the risks are understood and effectively controlled.

Winning tips

Preparation

Now that we understand the board’s role and focus, it is time to begin the preparation.  It is a mistake to underestimate the preparation time. I remember planning a preparation 3 – 4 months before the scheduled board meeting and this is not unusual. Status updates and proposals are scheduled to give presenters ample time to prepare, while the ‘please explain’ request can arise with a short notice.

  1. Understand the board submission process – Companies have well-defined processes and protocols to be followed for board submissions. Take time to understand the process, what is the accepted format (text document or PowerPoint, cover sheet), what are the pre-submission approval processes (e.g. CEO sign-off, leadership team run-through), what are the deadlines for submission. Getting these wrong can derail your presentations before the starting gate. Talk to others, get copies of the previous submissions. The company secretary is an authentic source and is also responsible for the board agenda.
  2. Understand what is on the board agenda – Make sure you understand what is on the full agenda. Research the current business priorities and challenges and talk to the other presenters to understand their proposals. If proper, coordinate your message with that of the others. This will avoid repetition (or worse contradictions) and help the team express a consistent message.
  3. Research board members – Try and understand more about the board members, their background, special interest or expertise and technology knowledge. Find out who are more active or influential around the board table and their focus areas. Try to understand their capacity to understand technical information.

Content

Whether you are an IT leader or Marketing leader the board looks upon you as a member of the senior leadership team. Always keep this in mind for the board interactions.

  1. Align the message to the board’s interest and needs – Align your message to themes like company strategic goals, effective governance and risk control, business growth and efficiency, customer service etc. These will resonate better than release upgrades, infrastructure investments, virtualization and service-oriented architecture, etc.
  2. Eliminate jargon and use business language – Use of jargon is the quickest way to lose the board’s interest. What is obvious to the technology literate younger generation may be incomprehensible to many board members. Talk about how IT (or the current proposal) is supporting or enabling business, helping improve customer experience, reducing time to market. Better still get the business sponsor to co-present business proposals. Talk about how you are addressing risks via compliance, disaster planning and governance.
  3. Sell opportunities at the executive table first – If you have new ideas or approaches discuss these with the CEO and business executives first. You may have to do significant groundwork to get them on board with new opportunities. If they agree, it is quite likely the CEO will discuss it informally with the Chairman or other board members. One has to defend ideas at the board table, not raise new ones.
  4. Keep at high level but prepare for a deep-dive – The board presentations are brief. 15 -30 minutes is what is on the agenda. In reality, it could be shorter. Keep the message at the strategic level but be ready with facts and figures to back it up. Board members tend to ask lot of questions, so prepare for these. Get help from CEO and CFO to find out what questions to expect.
  5. Research the company history– Board members can have long memories. Check if this idea/ proposal has been tried before, and, if so, was it successful? Did the projects deliver? Why not? How will it be different this time? Failure to research and address these questions may mean a lack of approval or a delay.

Get ready to deliver

  1. Rehearse and rehearse again – With time short and pressure high don’t leave anything to chance. Make sure you are on top of all the presentation material and the facts. Try a dry run with your team and the executive team if necessary. Get their opinion and revise.
  2. Write down questions and answers – It is easy to forget answers when under pressure. Write down the questions and answers and keep them at hand. Practice Q & A with your team.
  3. Prepare a two-minute version – Board meetings can be unpredictable. Presentation time can be cut drastically. State your purpose clearly and be ready to succinctly summarise your report / proposal. Seek to gain support for one key point that moves the board in the desired direction.
  4. Get ready for interruptions – Questions can start as soon as you stand up. They have read your submission. Don’t let these questions derail your presentation. Pause, breathe and smile before answering each question. Turn negative questions into positive answers. At all costs avoid blaming anyone. Stick to the facts.

Follow these tips and you are on your way to winning the board game. All the best for your next presentation! For a further discussion on how you can effectively engage with the board, please contact author.

Secrets of Climbing the Career Ladder!

Many people I meet ask me how to get ahead in their job. They ask me, what is the secret to career success?  Why it is that out of two people with similar skills and experience in an organisation one moves ahead, while the other stays behind? In this article I shall share what I have learnt from my own career experiences and what I have observed from others.

Bring the Right Attitude to the Job

If you have the right attitude to the job your colleagues and bosses will notice you. Managers will prefer to choose employees to work with who are positive, rather than those who complain all the time or criticise others for their perceived failings.

However, bringing the right attitude to the job is not just about being positive. Many people don’t make the effort to understand what their role is or what the job is meant to achieve. You should ask yourself, how does my job fit within the service delivery or the value creation process? For example, if you are an analyst is your job just gathering requirements or it is about understanding needs and devising alternative solutions to meet these needs? If you are a service desk person, is your job answering calls or it is about proving service so that other people can get on doing their job with minimum delay? Understanding the job means understanding what is valued by your customers, managers, and colleagues; not just reading the job description.

If you understand your job, stay positive, and show initiative, you are more likely to move ahead.

Get Things Done

Doing the job well is important, however as many employees do not properly understand the tasks assigned to them, the quality of their work suffers.  In order to avoid this situation, make sure you understand the task assigned to you. Sometimes your manager may assume that you understand what is expected from you, even though you do not. You should consult manager or other colleagues to clarify what is expected of you and then make sure you meet your commitments. Don’t over-promise and under deliver. Instead, get better at prioritising work; not everything that is urgent is important. Find time to get the important, but non urgent, items done.

However, don’t spring surprises on your manager or your colleagues. If you are running behind in your tasks or you encounter unexpected difficulties, inform your manager first. If you spring surprises up on your manager, you will lose the trust of both your manager and your colleagues, . If the manager cannot rely on you to get the job done, this will give them less reason to promote you.

Take Ownership

If you are on a stalled project, do you wait for someone to take the initiative to fix a problem and get things moving along? Leaders don’t wait for others to act, assume blame, or take charge. Instead, leaders take responsibility for the problem, even when it is not their fault. Taking ownership empowers you to achieve results. In most places I have worked, those who are most likely to succeed are proactive in finding and solving problems and act with increasing autonomy. Every job has several problems that are waiting to be fixed.  Find the problems, which you can fix, and go the extra mile by taking ownership of these problems. Taking on extra responsibilities will make you stronger and more action-oriented.

Improve Yourself

Self-improvement is a key to professional success. There are many different skills required for managerial roles, some of these you may have others you may not. Always look for ways to improve your skills. For many technology professionals, technical skills can only take you so far. To succeed, you must have an understanding of how the business operates. If you are aware of how areas, such as customer service, sales process, accounting, marketing and credit, work, you will better be able to relate to the business executives. This will improve your communication skills within the organisation and enable you to provide better solutions to problems.

Keep an eye on new developments in your profession. In the fast moving technology arena, new technologies, new methodologies, and new techniques are changing the way work gets done. If you stay abreast of developments in your area of interest, this will help you to identify the skills or knowledge you will need to improve your work and achieve success.

Be open to feedback from others. Feedback will tell you where you need to improve. If you fail to accept mistakes  or become defensive, your colleagues will stop giving you feedback.

Take the opportunity to participate in structured development programs with job rotations, if your organisation offers these. Otherwise, volunteer for assignments that will help you broaden your role or skill base. From my experience, opportunities that take you into completely new areas can often be the most rewarding. Experience different functional roles or participate on cross functional teams. Major projects or transformation activities open up a number of new opportunities that may not otherwise be available. Make use of these opportunities to gain new skills.

Ultimately, the best way to check if you are improving is to take the ‘resume test’. If at the end of the year you can honestly add 1-3 new achievements or capabilities to your resume, you are doing well.

Understand Your Manager’s Job

Managers do not consider employees for promotion solely on the basis of how well they do their current job. Managers will also assess how well you are likely to perform at the next higher level/s. Employees are promoted when they are seen to be ready to the job at the next level. Jobs at higher levels require different capabilities to what are needed to succeed at current level. If you understand what your manager’s role is and what skills or knowledge is required at their level, you can aim to acquire these skills and demonstrate them in your current role. When your manager is absent, you could volunteer to act in their role, or you could take on assignments that let you further develop the skills required for managerial positions.

Develop Relationships

In order to achieve success, you need to build relationships with a wide range of people in your organisation. Relationships with people both within and outside your own department can help you develop a better perspective about your role and the business. As a result, you will hear about opportunities and problems earlier than you normally would. Building positive relationships with your colleagues will also better enable you to balance different agendas and priorities.

Get Noticed!

Let your network know about your team’s success. There is a balance between sharing your team’s success story and bragging, so don’t overdo it. Let your successes speak for themselves (with a little bit of assistance from you).

Promotions don’t usually take place based on one person’s opinion, your manager, your peers, and other executives all influence the decision. In order to get ahead, you need to do more than what is expected from you. If you are seen as one who takes ownership and gets things done, you will be noticed.

Good luck! Remember, successful people shape their own luck!

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Elevator pitch for your proposals

Why do you need an “Elevator Pitch”?

When you are a project owner, manager or a sponsor you get asked what the project is about. This is important because bosses, employees, customers, and partners all need to “buy in” and get excited about your idea. They will form an initial impression in three minutes or less. This first impression is the lens through which everything else is viewed. If you are not able to clearly communicate what the project is about and why you are doing it, then the chances of getting the necessary funding or support for the project will rapidly diminish. Busy executives get bombarded with ideas and proposal many times every day. Even when you have a great idea, if they don’t understand it quickly the opportunity is lost.

A well-articulated message or an ‘elevator pitch’, while not a guarantee of success, is an important part of selling an idea. The problem is that many people don’t have a prepared pitch or story that they can tell and so the opportunity to sell an idea walks out of the door.

What is an ‘Elevator Pitch’?

An elevator pitch is a crisp message that communicates key features of the project in a succinct way so that others can easily understand it. Imagine if you get asked about the project in the lift going up to your office. Can you communicate what the project is about before the elevator gets from the ground to the tenth floor?

A good elevator pitch covers what problem you are trying to solve, who it will benefit (i.e. the customers), how you are going to solve it (the solution approach), what efforts/ investments are required (e.g. time, resources and money) and what the next steps are (i.e. what support you need). An elevator pitch is intended to give just enough information to get others interested in your proposition without overwhelming them with a flood of information.

An elevator pitch is a tool to help you communicate your proposition or your idea to others who have a stake in its success. To start, you need to have done your homework and have a clear idea about the ‘project’. It is worth spending some time with your team to prepare answers to following basic questions.

An elevator pitch is a tool to help you communicate your proposition or your idea to others who have a stake in its success. To start, you need to have done your homework and have a clear idea about the ‘project’. It is worth spending some time with your team to prepare answers to following basic questions.

Step 1 – Describe the Problem or the Opportunity

  1. What motivated you to launch this idea? What is the key problem or need? A real life story or scenario about the problem helps the audience understand the problem or need in personal terms and agree that it is an interesting problem that needs fixing.
  2. Who else is doing something similar? What problems or success have they encountered?
  3. How long would it take?

Step 2 – Define Your Solution to the Problem

  1. What is your approach to solving the problem? Where do you start? When do the first results appear?
  2. Is what you are delivering different from what others are delivering? In what way? What are the alternatives?
  3. Who would be the users or customers? Would it be easy or difficult for them to use/adopt this?
  4. How would the solution benefit the customers, save time, save costs, increase quality or generate more revenue? Are the benefits easy to see?
  5. When would these benefits be delivered? How much it would cost?

Step 3 – Describe the Implementation Plan and Risks

  1. What are the key activities in the implementation?
  2. What are the key decisions that need to be made?
  3. Who will do the work (e.g. internal staff or suppliers)? Do we have the skills or expertise to do the project?
  4. Who will oversee the implementation? Who is involved in making the key decisions?
  5. What are the major deliverables or milestones? When will they occur?
  6. What are the key risks and how you are addressing them?

Step 4 – What Funding is Available and what is Needed?

  1. Do you have enough funding to do the project?
  2. Where is the funding coming from?
  3. Do you have full funding or there are progressive rounds of funding? What are the milestones (or success measures) for additional funding?

Step 5 – Describe the Support Needed to Ensure Success

  1. Who is supporting this initiative? Why are they supporting it?
  2. What type of support are they providing?
  3. How do you plan to communicate/sell the project internally? What opposition do you see?

Step 6 – Consolidate, Practice and Deliver

There are a number of questions to consider in preparing the pitch. Based on your situation only a few would be included for your pitch. But having considered these questions you would have fully analysed the opportunity and will be ready to face questions that may arise.

Delivering the pitchThe pitch is a tool to educate and communicate so be clear, don’t use jargon! Create a tag line that captures the essence of the idea, e.g. “loans approved in five minutes” or “eliminating errors by data entry using smart phones”. Focus on the opportunity problem you’ve encountered and why your solution is the best for providing value and benefit to the customer. Make the argument compelling.

A typical closing statement may be – “We are solving an important problem, with a solution that works. We understand the risks and challenges ahead. We have a team that can execute. We need X dollars to reach Y milestone. We need your support to help us achieve this success. “

Keep the pitch concise and conversational. A pitch that has about 230 words would take a minute to deliver. Don’t come across as if you are lecturing or giving a long monologue. Ask a question to engage the listener. Your pitch needs to be credible. Avoid the temptation to overpromise or underestimate the cost or efforts. Use hard numbers wherever possible to demonstrate that you have done your homework. Be specific about the benefits and the support or resources needed for success. Tailor your pitch to the needs and interests of your audience while keeping the basic message consistent.  Finally, practice delivering your pitch on your team and colleagues. Time it to keep it short but relevant. Show passion and confidence. Ask them to join the crusade.

If, as a result of your pitch, they want to know more and invite you for a meeting you have succeeded in your task!

Acknowledgement: This article is based on a lecture by Prof. Lynda M. Applegate at Harvard Business School.

Are you a good boss?

 

In a recent issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, Stanford Professor Bob Sutton published an article that provides some advice to bosses at the top of organisations. Much of this advice is also relevant to CIOs and other IT leaders. Below is an edited extract from the article. Are you a good boss? Do you practice the things bob suggests?

Bosses Matter

Almost 95% of people who work have bosses or are bosses. The bosses set the tone, the rules and guide at close range. Bosses are important because for more than 75% of people employees, dealing with their direct boss is the most stressful part of their job. Those just below the boss in the pecking order constantly have to deal with the boss’ virtues, quirks and habits. A Swedish study indicated that men with bad bosses suffered 20-40% more heart attacks than those with good bosses.

Bosses matter but those that are higher up in the organisation matter the most. Whether they realise it or not, bosses cast long shadows. Their moves are observed constantly by their followers, who in turn will regularly magnify and mimic their moves. Often the subordinates know more about the boss and his/her habits than the boss him/herself. If the boss has an autocratic management style the subordinates tend to become autocratic. If the boss interrupts people when they are talking, the subordinates tend also to pick up this trait. The Executive’s actions (rather than words) reverberate through the rest of the organisation and can change or undermine the organisation’s culture. I have seen that within a year of the arrival of a new CEO, the culture of the organisation can change dramatically.

The best bosses stay in tune with the relentless attention given to them and are aware of power of the long shadow they cast. They use it to their advantage in setting the direction and showing that they are in charge. These bosses understand how others see them and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Effective bosses know how to take control and how to boost the performance of their organisation. The bosses who don’t know this find their tenures shortened.

Take Control

The first and most important thing that new bosses should do is convince others that they are in charge. Those who fail at this first hurdle will find their jobs impossible. In today’s organisations, leaders often get more credit (and blame) for the organisations successes than they deserve. The reality is that bosses only influence 15% of performance but receive 50% or more credit for it. This is reflected in the large salaries some Chief Executives receive. However, perception is reality. The bosses who admit they don’t have much influence on performance outcomes would lose the confidence of the team that they lead.

Bob lists four ideas to improve the perception of control:

1.  Express confidence even if you don’t feel it

In 2002, when Intel’s CEO Andy Grove was asked how leaders can act confident even when they have doubts he said, “Investments and decisions don’t wait for the picture to be clarified. You have to make then when you have to make them”. When leaders pump themselves and act confident, they start feeling confident. A leader’s confidence inspires their followers.

2. Don’t dither

Indecision, delay and waffling are hallmarks of a weak boss. If the boss makes quick decisions it creates the illusion that they are in charge. Others don’t mind if the boss changes his mind some time later as new information emerges. People don’t like the boss procrastinating before making each decision.

3. Get and give credit

As mentioned before, bosses tend to receive more credit when their people do good work. Smart bosses know this and can leverage this to their advantage. These bosses know people like to work for the winners so when mentioning accomplishments they give copious credit to others. The best bosses routinely give more credit to their team than they probably deserve because when they do this everyone wins. The boss gets the reflected credit and the team thinks the boss is truthful. Outsiders think that the boss is competent but also modest and generous.

4. Blame yourself

Just as bosses get most of the credit when things go right they get the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong. When something bad happens, the boss is expected to know. Leaders who denounce others for their troubles come across as less than honest and powerless. By refusing to take responsibility they raise the question, “are you really in control?” Managers who accept the blame and responsibility are seen to be more powerful and competent than those who avoid the blame.

However, the key is not just to accept the blame and say sorry. Instead the boss should take immediate control of the situation, show that they have learned from their mistakes and announce new plans. When these plans are implemented the boss should make sure everyone understands that the improved results are due to the new plans.

Bolstering performance

Bosses can bully and force people into short term performance gains. But in the long term these are counter-productive and undermine worker creativity and morale. Bob suggests three strategies that the best bosses use to focus on boosting the performance of their people:

1. Provide safety

Good bosses encourage learning by creating a safety zone where people can talk about half-baked ideas without the fear of ridicule or punishment. Many organisations have a strong fear of failure. Creating psychological safety is the key to unleashing new ideas and creativity in the workplace. The absence of psychological safety in conjunction with fear of the boss can lead to negative consequences. When people fear reprisals, errors tend to be hidden and not admitted. Feedback and improvements stop which in many cases can result in more significant problems down the track.

2. Shield people

The best bosses shield their people from criticism or premature judgement from others that can undermine their work. Teams who enjoy such protection have the freedom to take risks and try new things. Good bosses provide their people with the resources and experts to do the work and air cover to get on with the job without unnecessary distractions and criticisms.

Good bosses are especially adept at protecting their people’s time, for example by eliminating unnecessary meetings or keeping them short. They also try to eliminate needless reviews and activities often initiated by outsiders so that the team can focus on the job at hand.

3. Make small gestures

The late Robert Townsend, CEO of Avis and author of the masterpiece Up the organisation, referred to the phrase “thank you” as a, “really neglected form of compensation”. It is a sad reality that too many projects end without acknowledgement and celebration. The best managers take the time to express their appreciation to their people even when the project has gone bad. When the stench of failure is in the air people need more support from the boss and from one another. Bosses with will and skill provide this support and allow their people to learn from the failure. However, more bosses unfortunately engage in the blame game than provide support.

Summary

Good bosses not only get more from their people, they also attract and keep better people. If you think the people who work for you are deadbeats or jerks, look in the mirror. Why don’t the best people want to work for you?

Of all the skills good bosses have, self-awareness is probably the most important. The best performers accurately judge both their strengths and their flaws. They make an effort to understand how their moods and quirks affect the performance of their team.

The best bosses will constantly ask themselves, “what does it feels to be working for me?”. If your people answered this question honestly, what would they say?

Do not let your communication hold you back!

These days it is not difficult to find CIOs who are excellent communicators. Unfortunately, it is also very common to see many IT leaders who struggle to communicate well. Some IT leaders are very good at communicating technical information with their teams whilst others communicate well with business users. However, many IT leaders find it hard to communicate effectively with all the stakeholders in the business. I have thought about why this is the case and what IT leaders at all levels can do to improve their message delivery, be effective at leading and motivating their team and engaging with the business.

Many people working in IT start in technical or engineering areas where technical knowledge and skills are valued much more than communication skills. In these areas, peer group discussions are about technical issues and are usually full of jargon. Even when these people become team leaders, they have a technical team and a technical boss so the style of communication does not need to change. Those that have to deal with business users often struggle to get their message across or to elicit ‘real’ requirements.

The inability to communicate effectively reduces one’s own performance and damages the reputation of IT in the organisation. It can affect their relationship between IT staff and their peers. When lT leaders talk in jargon their message is lost, misunderstandings occur and they fail to win others over to their cause. Communication blunders can adversely impact an IT leader’s career by reinforcing a ‘geeky’ image. Executives think if an IT leader cannot express their ideas clearly that they should hire someone else who can.

Here are some tips on improving communications:

Avoid jargon

What is true for board communication (Winning the Board Game) also applies to communication with other people. Speak in simple jargon free language. Even among technical people, talking in simple terms is always more effective than talking in jargon. When talking with jargon you are assuming everyone has the same knowledge level as you. When listeners don’t understand the technical terms they lose the message you are trying to deliver. It is even worse when talking to the business because they will just stop listening altogether.

Don’t dazzle them, get buy-in

Some IT people want to impress others with their brilliant solutions or ideas. They are very confident that they know the very best way of doing something or solving a problem. What happens then is that they become so enthusiastic about their own thinking that they fail to get a commitment from the others. They don’t get the perspective of others or try to build a consensus. In fact, the enthusiasm and confidence of these people discourages others from raising questions or making suggestions. Although others seem dazzled by good ideas, this doesn’t mean they believe them or will become part of the solution development process. Failing to get agreement at the start of discussions can create delays later as people struggle to comprehend why this solution is being implemented and why other approaches will not work.

Ask questions

Asking questions ensures an understanding. It also encourages others to ask for clarifications, make suggestions and present other points of view. Asking meaningful questions and listening to the answers engages the audience, making them active participants. It can help show important information, insight or feedback. If you are presenting an idea or business case, asking questions facilitates understanding, which can lead to a agreement.

Don’t act like a sales person

New IT leaders try to motivate their teams or get them energised by behaving like sales people or sport captains by saying phrases like, “go get them” and “play to win”. IT staff are generally low-key and like facts and arguments, not rah-rah. Learn to speak with the audience in their language.
Similarly, using scare tactics to sell ideas does not work. IT Leaders talk about catastrophic consequences when discussing technical upgrades or investments. Most experienced business executives have heard these type of doomsday scenarios from IT before and find them unconvincing. Using rational, measured arguments and discussing options improves understanding along with the presenter’s credibility.

Too many facts spoil the pitch

Just as too little facts don’t make a good argument, too many facts can confuse instead of enlighten. Some leaders think they would be more credible if they have a fact heavy business case or presentation, especially for IT investments. Telling a story can be more powerful than a litany of facts, charts and analyses. In addition to the facts, others are looking for passion and commitment to get them to join you and support your cause.

Don’t get bogged down in technical problems

Although technical problems may be the most pressing issue on your mind or in your day, most other people don’t want to know about your technical problems. The jargon in talking about technical problems can be boring and/or may cause others to misunderstand and panic. As a leader, you are expected to handle these technical problems yourself or ask others how they could help. When leaders regularly talk about their technical problems others may think you can’t handle the job. If the problems are important be brief with the details, tell others the possible impacts on their business and what steps you have taken to resolve the problems without resorting to detailed step by step explanations.

Don’t forget your team

Many IT leaders focus their energy and communication on the upper tiers of management and business managers. While it is important to communicate effectively with management, remember your team needs to hear from you as well. Your team will have questions and concerns and  will need direction from you. You need their agreement and support to meet your goals and do your role. Don’t forget this!

Don’t bypass other leaders

Many senior leaders believe they are better communicators than their managers and team leaders. While it is right for major company news or changes in direction to be communicated from up above, research indicates that communication to the team from their direct leader or supervisor is the most effective and most credible. Immediate supervisors know the on-ground realities and can address what is important to their staff. They can give specific direction. Employing the organisational hierarchy to cascade communications prevents mixed messages and conflicts from occurring. It also avoids the inadvertent undermining of subordinate managers.

Discussion or direction

In meetings, make sure it is clear when issues or items are being discussed and brainstormed. Many leaders don’t clarify when the discussion is over and a decision has been made, creating confusion within the team. If the team continues to discuss decisions after they are made, the leaders’ authority is undermined. In strict hierarchies, once the leader has an idea, the team feels it is disrespectful to challenge it. In this case, encouraging exploration and discussion needs to be very explicit. On the other hand, when a decision is reached, clarity in assigning responsibility and actions improves communication.

Written directions

Making a written record of the decision in meeting minutes or in a follow-up memo further facilitates clear communication. A written record of the decisions made and the instructions given provides useful information for those who were not part of the meeting or the discussion. Written instructions create clarity and avoid confusion as different participants may have a different idea of what decision was reached.

Final word

Remember, improving communication is not a one step process. Communication continues to be a problem in all organisations. To become better at communicating requires practice and more practice.

Good luck!

Managing talent with 9-box grid

Career pathsWhen we think of talent management, we immediately think of managing bright and high potential employees. But although ‘star talent’ are important in any business, just managing stars is not enough. A high performing team means managers have to understand the performance and contribution from all the team and manage the talent pool. Often talent management is the missing ingredient from many IT strategies. While great emphasis is given to obtaining hot technical skills managing existing talent appears to be forgotten.

I came across two management tools, one is called the ‘Career Crossroads Model’ and other is a ‘9 box-grid’. I found these tools useful with the challenge of managing leadership talent. The Career Crossroads Model also helps guide the long-term career development of individuals in the context of the organisation’s needs. I hope you will also find these useful.

Many approaches to strengthening leadership capabilities focus on individual ‘stars’ rather than the whole leadership bench. Leaders drive results and if there are gaps in their ability, performance suffers. If the gaps are known, development plans can be created.

Career Crossroads Model

As an individual progresses though careers, s/he progress through a number of natural crossroads. Usually the individual will advance from ‘managing oneself’ to ‘managing others’, then ‘managing functions’, to ‘managing business’ and so on. Each of these crossroads needs different skills and job experience. For example, technical skills are required to manage oneself whilst P&L management and business strategy skills are needed to manage a business. Individuals step into a new role, grow in that role and get ready for the next career crossroad. In good organisation practices there is no instant move from one level to another at a much higher level (e.g. from managing oneself to becoming a functional manager). Each crossroad is also called a ‘turn’ opportunity.

Performance and potential

Good potential leads to good performance. However, potential is not an absolute measure. In an earlier article, I had discussed the idea of potential being a combination of demonstrated capabilities, ambition/motivation (to take on the challenges at the new crossroads level) and alignment with the organisation’ needs in terms of career progression. The Crossroads Model helps assess potential based on prior performance. When an individual does not have all three aspects of potential, performance suffers.

Performance

In judging performance there needs to a clear and complete job definition. It must define what is required to be successful in the role as well as what customers, shareholders, team and colleagues require. If the job is described as a circle and each dimension of performance done well is shown as a line, the following representations of performance emerge.

Exceptional performance meets performance criteria in many job dimensions, whilst full performance meets performance criteria in all job dimensions (note: this is a simplified example, in reality complications such as exceeding some dimensions and not meeting others can arise). Exceptional performers need to be given larger jobs otherwise they will leave and find challenges elsewhere. Developing performers on the other hand, need more time in the role and need help to improve their performance.

Levels of Potential

There are three levels of potential: Turn, Growth and Mastery.
1.Turn Potential – The ability and desire to move to a job at a higher level on the Career Crossroads Model.
2.Growth Potential – The ability and desire to move to a bigger/more complex job on the same level.
3.Mastery potential – The ability and desire to balance current and changing job requirements and deepen experience and specialisation on the same current level.

The 9-box grid

The 9-box potential performance grid provides an easy way to plot leadership talent in the organisation on a single page. It’s a great way to create an open dialogue amongst a leadership team. Open discussions and multiple perspectives allow better calibration of ratings and expectations and a shared ownership of the organisation’s talent pool. It’s a great way to identify development needs and succession planning opportunities.

Using the 9-box grid

The grid is used in two ways; to plan individual career development and to plan and manage the talent pool in the organisation. There is development action associated with each of the 9 boxes. In brief these are:

  1. Ready for a move to the next level within the next 12 months.
  2. Move to a larger role on the same level within 12-24 months.
  3. Coach and develop to be exceptional performer.
  4. Leverage mastery for the benefit of the organisation. Reward and recognise. Use their help to develop high performers.
  5. Manage /coach to improve performance.
  6. These can be employees who have moved to a new level. Coach/ develop to continue to have a turn potential.
  7. Develop to become exceptional performers.
  8. Assess the reasons for lack of performance. Coach/develop to become fully performing.
  9. As above or move out in the next 12 months.

Effective organisations have a mix of people in all the boxes. Many organisations just focus on the top talent (boxes 1-3) and forget the needs of the people in other boxes. Employees in the boxes 4, 5 and 7 are valuable employees who can have deep expertise in their areas. The challenge is to keep the skills of these employees up to date as business and technology changes. Over time the market forces and change would push the performance levels up, so staff would need to keep up to maintain full performance. Managers ought to help employees improve performance as well as try and lift growth potential of the team.

Ideal talent mix

Different business situations demand different mixes of talent.
Start-up – An organisation in the start-up or high growth phases would need to have a much higher proportion of high potential individuals than one in the mature stages. Start-ups require a high number of ready to grow employees and leaders as well as seasoned professionals (box 4).
Growing business – A growing business needs a high proportion of exceptional performers and a pipeline of talent to move to the next crossroad levels as the business grows and new opportunities emerge.
Consolidation – A business in a consolidation mode
would not have many opportunities for people to take on larger jobs. Hence, they would need lower numbers in boxes 1, 2, 3. There may be more people in boxes 8 and 9 as they try to do more with less and raise the bar.
Normal Business – In a normal business, the ideal mix may look like the below. There would be smaller proportion of high performers and low performers with the middle performers / mid potential staff in higher numbers.

Conclusion

The 9-box model provides an easy and effective way to manage talent. It helps identify the category of the employee and tailor appropriate development plans to groom them. When there is a shortage of talent it is even more important to use the model to optimise performance and help employees grow within the organisation. What I like about the model is that it does not solely focus on high fliers but also recognises the important role played by the ‘solid’ performers who keep the organisation ticking along.