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Opinion: CIO Tips for ‘Talking Tech’ to the Exec

To make the most of face time with senior leadership, CIOs should make sure their project’s goals are always clear and in focus, meetings stay on track, and discussions are framed in business or operational terms.

A group of business professionals sitting around a conference table talking.
While it’s great for chief information officers to work for someone who trusts them and their work, having regularly scheduled time with a manager to validate understandings, specify the department’s approach and ensure its compass is pointing in the right direction is also very important. Some of the most difficult challenges CIOs can have include getting the necessary face time with their senior leadership, communicating in a way that conveys messages clearly, and effectively maintaining focus in order to arrive at a decision or thumbs-up needed for a project to proceed.

It doesn’t matter the age of a senior executive or how tech-savvy they are — when it comes to the bits and bytes of a technology discussion, when the conversation becomes too technical or complicated, CIOs often run the risk of losing their audience’s attention. And once that happens, it’s often very hard to get the attention back, especially in the same meeting. We have all been there! We have all wondered what we did wrong and struggled to find a way to get back to the key point of the meeting in the first place. But too many times, someone says, “Let’s pick this up next time” or “Why don’t you meet with so and so.”

The fact is, executives are busy, they are juggling many matters at the same time, and at any given moment their priorities can change as a new emergency or crisis comes up. At the very worst, the CIO is further delayed in getting direction, or they get the go-ahead without the validation and clarifications they wanted or needed.

So how can CIOs make the best of the time they have scheduled and get the “yes” or thumbs-up they need? With a plan!

  1. The CIO needs to know what they need and what they want to achieve. Without this, the meeting has no stated outcome. Hopefully, the CIO’s stated objective is aligned with that of their executives. It is always a good idea to send a brief note to the executive leader in advance about looking forward to the meeting, setting out what will be discussed and what the meeting aims to achieve. Attach any reading materials the executive may find helpful, but don’t assume they will have the time to review it beforehand.
  2. Conversations can go in many different directions. If a meeting gets sidetracked, return to its most basic point in order to bring the conversation back on track and moving forward.
  3. Always remember why everyone is there. For example:

    “I need to keep my executive informed of the work or issues that can impact them or their decisions.”

    “I need their direction or guidance to help me do my job and assure me that I am heading in the right direction.”

    “I need to brief them on the impact of my work so that they are not blindsided — it’s not about the technology, but the business implications or impact.”
  4. Always being mindful that the goal is to solve a business problem, enable a new service or change a behavior, frame the discussion in business or operational terms, not technology terms. Only the CIO’s staff cares about how the system is architected or how all the components fit together. Executives and business leaders care that it works and will deliver the functions and services as needed and intended.
  5. Finally, executives and business leaders are outcome-oriented people. Be prepared to set reasonable expectations on when a project will be completed, how much participation it needs from others, what the risks are and how to mitigate them. And while the CIO may not be ready to discuss every aspect of a project in a meeting, they should be prepared to assure everyone that the plan will address the most important steps — functional development, data, security, privacy, reports, access, training, rollout and ongoing support. The key here is to assure executives that the CIO is on top of the important issues and to give them comfort in knowing they don’t have to worry about them alone.
Brian Cohen is the Vice President of the Center for Digital Government and Center Digital Education. Prior to joining the Center, Brian served for 30 years in IT leadership roles with the City of New York and most recently with the City University of New York (CUNY).