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CIOs are from Venus, CEOs are from Mars

When you talk, does your CEO listen? Forbes CIO Forum panelists offer practical advice on how to get your message heard.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Learn a new business vocabulary. Sell IT as a service. Contribute to company-wide cost cuts. And make sure those crucial infrastructure changes that no one outside the IT department wants to know about happen without any downtime. There's a good reason the average tenure for a new CIO is 18 months, according to Rick Click, a guy with a memorable name and a simple message for his peers: Being a CIO is a tough racket these days.

"Today's CIO is expected to be able to talk to the CEO about EBIDTA," said Click, vice president and CIO at Molina Healthcare Inc. (For those of you stuck in yesterday, that's earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization.) "But I do not expect the CEO to understand me when I'm talking about 2PAC decimal transfer. The burden is definitely on the CIO to learn a new language."

Getting C-suite executives, especially CEOs, to understand what IT executives are saying, or selling, is a central theme at this week's Forbes CIO Forum 2005, a two-day event that opened yesterday at the Stanford Court Hotel.

Allan Lubitz gets it done by hosting golf tournaments. An Option One Mortgage senior vice president and CIO in Irvine, Calif., Lubitz knocks on the office doors of Option One business executives, and invites them to the annual golf tournament sponsored by his IT department. Many times, he'll offer to pay their $75 course fee, money that comes directly out of his IT budget. Then he gets vendors, his business partners, to help sponsor the event with free beverages and snacks.

Seven ways to sell IT

  1)     Justify every budget dollar.

2)     No surprises. Keep everyone in the loop.

3)     Implement a PMO.

4)     Hire A-team players (even smarter than you!).

5)     Just say "No" to unrealistic requests.

6)     Get business execs to own IT projects.

7)     Learn the language your CEO uses.


Source: Panelists at the Forbes CIO Forum 2005

"I bring together my customers -- and the vendors, who are my business partners," Lubitz said. When Lubitz talks about customers, he is referring to Option One business executives. To make sure the IT golf tournament doesn't become a boondoggle, employees are asked to take a day off when participating. The tournament is designed to get business unit leaders comfortable with the IT folks, and vice versa.

"We don't just go after the C-level people," Lubitz said. "It's often the people just below that." That's because Lubitz believes in grassroots efforts, building relationships with the people who help push information up through the ranks, and eventually into the boardroom.

Barbara Layton, telecommunications manager for the County of Marin's information services department, is another fan of finding IT champions throughout the enterprise. When Layton wanted to roll out wireless cards to state employees, she went looking for the most mobile employees.

"I think you always need to find someone really wants the technology to work," said Layton, who was a private-sector CIO before arriving at the San Rafael, Calif., agency.

Andrew Braunstein, chief technology officer and co-founder of HealthWyse LLC, a Reading, Mass., service provider for home health providers, knows from his days at Hewlett-Packard Co. the challenges of communicating to the CEO in a big company. HealthWyse is growing, Braunstein said, but "you can still walk around in a company that size, and talk to the person you need to talk to. From that perspective, we may be at an advantage."

But some rules apply no matter how small a company, he said. "I don't care what size you are, the person above you doesn't want any surprises."

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At an afternoon panel discussion moderated by Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard, Click and Lubitz joined the vice president and CIO of Toyota Financial Services Corp. Shaun Coyne and San Francisco State University's IS department chair Sam Gill to answer the question "What do executives really want from IT?"

The panelists hammered away at two themes: CIOs need to get business executives to own IT projects and IT needs to sell (but not oversell) itself as a service.

"Invariably the projects that are owned by the business, and use our domain expertise in certain areas, are the ones that are successful," Coyne said. Lubitz said he learned the hard way how to sell IT. Early in his career, Lubitz said, he saw some business executives recoil at the idea of having responsibility for IT projects assigned to them. Now Lubitz finds a business unit "that is the most ready" to own an IT project, and he operates through PMOs -- project management offices -- that can lend IT projects structure and help define ROI and stakeholder responsibilities.

"We are religious about the fact that there must be a business owner," Lubitz told the crowd of about 100 attendees. He encouraged CIOs to be courageous, to step outside their comfort zone, to just say "No" to requests that they cannot fulfill and to hire people smarter than themselves.

"There is the risk that someone is going to try to climb over your back," Lubitz said. But, he said, "the pluses outweigh the minuses."

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