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:
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.
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.
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.
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.