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Practice makes perfect when it comes to being a great CIO communicator

How important is being a good speaker to a CIO's career? It may be the single biggest factor for success, according to CIOs from Johnson & Johnson, Starwood Hotels, Southern Company and Walmart.

CIOs can speak IT fluently, but knowing how to talk tech doesn't make CIOs masters of communication. "We all think [that because] we're born with a mouth and ears, we're experts at communicating. And I'm not so sure that's the case," said Martha Poulter, executive vice president and CIO at Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Stamford, Conn. "We need to invest in it, observe others and practice it."

Becoming a deft communicator means more than "learning to speak the language of the business," a line that's practically become an IT cliché. The strategy is too narrow to encompass the communications expertise CIOs and would-be CIOs will need to be a partner to the business, Poulter said.

Martha PoulterMartha Poulter

Poulter's comments came during a CIO panel, Getting to CIO & Beyond No Matter Where You Came From, at this year's Gartner Symposium. She was joined by CIOs from Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and Southern Company, who stressed that skills like speaking, writing -- even listening -- should be part of every CIO's ongoing education. Being a great communicator, like any talent, requires practice. Charisma doesn't hurt, either.

Know your business partners

Where to begin? For starters, CIOs should know "when to put on the tech speak and [know] when to back off of the tech speak," Poulter said.

Francisco DeArmasFrancisco DeArmas

Francisco DeArmas, vice president and CIO of Global Surgery Americas at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., said he rarely talks infrastructure upgrades with several J&J corporate boards he sits on. Instead, discussions happen in business terms -- for example, how the company can expand its reach in Mexico with the help of IT. "You have to understand what is it that makes the business leaders you're partnering with successful," he said.

To add to his business acumen, DeArmas interacts with the surgery business' most important asset -- the customer. He attends at least one surgery every month "to see how our tools are being used and to hear what the doctors and nurse practitioners and physician assistants are saying about this," he said.

Observation and active listening help DeArmas connect to business successes -- and to problems. "In Asia, the hands are smaller, so they're having a problem with some of our instruments," he said. "You learn from that, and you look at how you can make those instruments better for that part of the world."

When building a strategy or pitching an idea, Starwood's Poulter advised audience members to think like the people in their sales departments. "You have to sell your ideas, sell your strategy and market them," she said. Because CIOs cut across the enterprise, they need to be adept at speaking to employees and colleagues "in all forms and factors -- that's in big audiences and small audiences, with the CEO and not with the CEO," she said.

Fumbi ChimaFumbi Chima

Fumbi Chima, CIO at Walmart Asia, subscribes to the "brevity is the soul of wit" theory of communications -- in both verbal and written interactions. "The ability to be succinct and relevant to the audience -- it's an art and not a science," she said.

Kenny Coleman, senior vice president and CIO at the Atlanta-based Southern Company, an energy company serving 4.5 million customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, believes that the CIO's language should be aspirational. "You've got to speak the language of where you're trying to go," he said, cribbing from the book Rules of the Game.

Kenny ColemanKenny Coleman

Chima and Coleman's fluency in business may come a little more naturally to them than it would to a CIO who rises up through the IT ranks. Prior to taking on the CIO role at Southern Company, Coleman served in the energy company's marketing and division operations departments. Chima's background includes experience in accounting and as a management consultant focused on business transformation efforts.

The power of peers & mentors

Speaking effectively can be taught. Higher education is a resource CIOs shouldn't rule out for refining communication skills, Starwood's Poulter said. Mentors and peers are another resource.

"If you don't have someone mentoring you, I would recommend you look for someone. And don't pick someone because they have a nice title," Johnson & Johnson's DeArmas said. "A large part of what makes people good speakers is their persona in front of a group. Pick someone because you like the way they handle themselves, you like the way they interact with others and the way they are perceived by others," he said.

While CIOs should model themselves after the masters, they should not discount the value of peer review. CIO and business peers can provide a level of honesty about the clarity of the message. Poulter advises finding a "good, close colleague" for this job, because "you're never going to get better if you don't get that 360-degree view," she said.

Southern Company's Coleman took it one step further and said to find allies "at every level" who can help in navigating a company's internal politics, answer questions that "you don't want anyone to know you had to ask," sift through information, pinpoint the truth "and think through how to respond," he said.

IT food for thought

To hone those public speaking skills, panel moderator Gene Alvarez, a customer relationship management analyst for Gartner Research, suggested volunteering for an organization that needs a spokesperson. "Even if it's a softball team or somewhere you have to stand up in front of people to raise funds," he said. "You're going to get better -- sooner or later."

Another area to flex effective communication skills is at the performance review. That doesn't mean "sitting in a performance review and being told you're doing a great job, because that's the easy way out," Poulter said. Instead, accept the pats on the back and then ask where improvements can be made.

Poulter shared an experience she had at General Electric, her employer for 19 years before she joined Starwood Hotels. Her supervisor told her she was doing a great job, but skipped over the professional development question on the review form, asking Poulter which position she wanted next. So, she pushed to discuss it, asking if he would support her for the position she had listed. "And he turned red -- i.e., 'No,'" she said. "There were reasons for that, and we then had the real conversation."

Walmart's Chima also sees honest feedback as a means for growth, adding that it should be seen as a gift. "Take it as it is. Don't personalize it because it's only going to make you better," she said.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

Next Steps

MIT's Hal Gregersen explains why every good disruptor is a master question-asker

Allstate's Pat Coffey on communicating an IT vision

This was last published in December 2014

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