The CIO Golden Rule – Talking in the Language of the Business

There have been many articles lately about different types of CIO’s, particularly one by IBM about CIO’s being split into two classes of leaders; strategic and operational.  The topic also continues to be front and center in many CIO conversations and conferences.  It’s a topic that I believe is very important, particularly as I continue to observe many examples of people who still don’t understand what the CIO’s real role is: a strategic business leader who focuses primarily on adding business value; whether it’s increased revenue, higher customer satisfaction, new business opportunities, or increased customer retention. To make this happen, a CIO really needs to always be talking the language of the business.  Conversations with other executives and business users need to focus on what they’re facing every day in their jobs. Talking to them in business terms is absolutely critical and one I call the CIO golden rule.

The relationships a CIO builds with the C-suite is critical to success and the conversations you have with them is a big factor towards building successful relationships.  Therefore, the conversations need to center on what you can do for the other business leaders, in their business terms.  How can you help them achieve their goals? What business problems are they facing, and how can you help them fix these problems?  These discussions should be completely about the business problem, not the technology.  Using technology acronyms or talking about the latest technology fad is a path to failure.

Additionally, by ensuring the technology projects have a direct business goal attached to them, the conversations about these projects will naturally center around a business context that will have meaning to the business executives and users. They will understand it and have a better appreciation for what IT is doing and the value you bring to the company.

I heard one technology executive talk recently about how she couldn’t get the CEO to understand why they need an Enterprise Service Bus. Hearing her say this sent shudders down my spine as that’s the type of conversation I would never have with a senior executive, let alone a CEO.  If your conversation is about a need, the business outcome should be front and center.  Not the technology.

To ensure you are always talking in the language of your business, it helps to do the following:

  1. Understand your business just as well as the other business leaders– As I’ve told others many times, my goal is to understand our business as well as, if not better, than the other senior executives.  This is critical.
  2. Know what the drivers are for long-term revenue – You know your business, but do you really know what drives revenue?  What are the levers that you can help move to increase revenue? Where will the company be in 1-2 years time, and what can you do to help get them there?
  3. Understand your customers – What do your customers want and what drives them to do business with you?  You can’t help increase revenue or improve customer satisfaction without really understanding your customer.  Better yet, go visit them.
  4. Know your employee base – Your internal customers are critical.  What hurdles are they facing in doing their job?  How can the applications they use be easy to use and intuitive?

The mission to speak the language of the business shouldn’t stop with you.  Getting your team to do the same is just as important.  As a leader, your team follows your examples and listens to your words.  I always hold periodic department meetings where I invite business leaders to speak about their specific area.  My staff gets excited by this and often come back to me for additional questions, so it’s an ongoing dialogue that is important to maintain.

To expand your team’s business knowledge, have them go through training conducted by the business groups.  New employees should attend training classes devoted to new business users.  Rotate them through short stints in the field if possible.  The goal here is not just understanding what the business does, but learning the language as soon as possible.

If your company is periodically mentioned in the press, make sure your employees see those clips and have the opportunity to ask questions. Highlighting press about the company and taking the time to talk to them in the hallway about these items is another reinforcement opportunity.

Everything above is done to ensure your teams don’t just feel a part of the business, but that they truly understand it and can talk in business terms.  It will make you, your team, and your company more successful.

7 thoughts on “The CIO Golden Rule – Talking in the Language of the Business”

    1. Scott – Great question. There is a business benefit to this request and I would focus the conversation on that benefit. Some examples would be time to market and the ability to quickly respond to bringing in a new business application to meet a new product offering or critical business objective. Data quality is another. Better insight about our customers ensuring the correct customer data is brought forward from sales applications to transactional. Reducing inefficiencies by eliminating redundant data entry, allowing more time to focus on the customer. It’s all about the business benefit and not the “technology”.

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