How to talk like a CIO

By , ITworld |  IT Management

roaring lion

You, too, can learn how to roar

Image credit: flickr/Michael Bentley

How do CIOs talk, and what do they talk about? How does their manner of speaking set them apart as C-worthy material? And, perhaps the most important question of all: Can a little pussycat learn to growl and purr like a C-level lion?

The speaker finished and waited for questions, but the room hesitated.

"Those with the highest sexual drive are always the first to ask a question," he said.

That worked. A suitably virile young guy raised his hand.

The audience laughed. But here's the thing: The speaker was spot-on.

In a business setting, of course, you'd swap "leadership potential" for "sexual drive."*

But whether you call it charisma, or leadership caliber, one trait that distinguishes a leader from a follower is the courage to be the first to clap, nod, or raise your hand. It's how we tell an innovator from a lackey. A manager from a help-desk staffer. A CIO from a pocket-protector peon.

"When the company big shot delivers his last line, carefully contrived to bring the crowd to its feet or employees to acquiesce, do you think he's unaware of who starts the trickle, or the riptide, of acceptance?" asks Leil Lowndes in her book, How to Talk to Anyone. "No way! Though his head is down while taking a bow, with the insight of a McCarthy-era spy, he perceives who inaugurated the applause, precisely how long after the last words were uttered, and precisely how enthusiastically."

Being the first to respond means you're not waiting to see how everyone else responds. Even if you're the first to mutter "Good idea," Lowndes says, speaking up first is "proof positive you're a person who trusts his or her own instincts."

That self-confidence is the sign of a leader. For those who dream of climbing the corporate ladder, it makes sense to analyze the speaking and comportment styles of the people who've already done it. In IT, you must ask yourself: How do CIOs talk, and what do they talk about? How does their manner of speaking set them apart as C-worthy? Can a grunt learn to growl like a CIO?

There's no magic fairy dust to turn you into a CIO. There are, however, communication traits that distinguish good leaders. Here are some, along with input from technologists who've learned how to talk like CIOs or who've been on the listening end of both eloquent and bombastic tech leaders.

Speak no tech jargon (unless a higher-up speaks it first)

A developer working on bank systems did a demo for a room full of the senior and executive vice presidents concerned with his project. After he finished, most attendees left, but one senior VP stayed behind.

The boss had a question. "During your talk, you said X. Does that mean I can do Y?" the company exec asked. The senior VP sat down at the terminal to demonstrate what he meant. In so doing, he whipped out surprisingly impressive technical acumen.

"The developer was amused," Dennis McCunney, a Linux administrator who knew the developer, told me. "The senior VP had serious technical chops, but he wasn't about to demonstrate them in front of his peers. He feared, justifiably, that if he did so he'd get classified as a techie and taken out of consideration as a possible future CEO."

If he found himself tapped as CIO somewhere, McCunney said, his standard operating procedure would be, "Monkey see, monkey do." He would dress like the senior staff. He would act like them. He would refrain from techie talk, which is gibberish to most bigwigs. Rather, he'd speak in their language. He'd demonstrate concern with the bigwigs' business problems, and he'd talk about: 1. How his department could help 2. Costs, and 3. ROI.

"Technical details are my problem," McCunney said. "I haven't been a CIO, but decades in IT have been similar at lower levels. My challenge was to understand what the user's problem was so I could apply technology to address it."

Of course, it's impossible and unwise, to strictly avoid technical language. Pamela L. Howell, a senior IT consultant in system administration, security, technical writing, and project management, has been on the receiving end of both CIO gobbledygook and clear communication. As she describes it, her job is to listen well, match her responses to the context, avoid looking mystified when she gets the buzzwords, and match the level of techie talk.

"At some larger corporations I've consulted to, the C-levels speak a lot of management buzzword gobbledygook," she says. "Still, being able to sling that lingo around and appear to follow it when it's slung can make all the difference, especially when one is trying to fit in or adapt to a specific corporate culture quickly."

Learn to shut up

Responding appropriately to a given context boils down to listening skills.

As Gord Boyes responded to me on Quora, listening is an underrated skill, especially in the workplace. It's rare enough that it makes you stand out if you do it well. "People that listen get noticed," he says. "And it's also part of sprint training: The more you listen, the more you learn, which means you know more than most."

Knowing more means you have more to offer, of course. "It ... helps to be proactive in reporting and feeding information upstream that's useful, not useless; this will get you noticed upstairs, and if you're tactful, you won't look like an ass kisser," Boyes says. "When talking to other employees ... listen, and then talk."

Harwell Thrasher—author of the book, Boiling the IT Frog: How to Make Your Business Information Technology Wildly Successful Without Having to Learn Anything Technical — puts it this way: If you watch your audience's eyes glaze over, yet still you keep blabbing, you're not going to do so hot.

When he was working on Internet payroll systems for Ceridian, Thrasher came up with a way to make sure that people were following him instead of glazing over.

There were questions about how they'd design the Internet payroll systems. The team wound up with simple paper mockups. His team did the mockups on a word processor, but then they printed out the plan.

Then, Thrasher's team took the people who'd use such a system, sat them down with the paper, and had them think through how they'd tackle everything having to do with payroll, such as, How would I enter time? How would I start a payroll? How do I start vacation?

By watching users deal with the project in paper form, Thrasher's team could see whether they had the information they needed on screen (or rather, in the design phase, on paper) or if they had to jump back and forth. Would adding some piece of information to a screen be helpful, perhaps?

What does this have to do with listening skills? Thrasher knew his audience. He knew that if you give somebody something on a computer screen, it looks, more or less, like a finished product, even if you just threw it together quickly. Hence, the people from whom you need feedback are less likely to criticize the mockup.

Give them paper, though, let them play with it, and they're more likely to offer suggestions, since the project doesn't feel like a fait accompli.

"There's an intimidation factor to technology, even to those used to tech," Thrasher says, and the ability to read your target audience's intimidation level is leadership gold.

For her part, Lowndes gives these tips:

  • Even while talking, keep your eyes on listeners to see how they're responding.
  • Smiling, nodding, palms up = They like what they're hearing.
  • Frowning, looking away = Not so much.

And as others have pointed out, these clues:

  • Rubbing necks
  • Stepping back
  • Stacking papers
  • Feet pointing toward door
  • Coughing

mean your audience is planning to make a break for it.

How to be the (beloved!) bearer of bad news

James Schweitzer, a systems administrator, notes that the technical communication bit is easy. What's really hard, he says, is when a CIO has to tell the VP of widgets that he can't use his iPad until a policy and support structure has been created. Or, say, telling the head of sales you can't roll out Windows 8 just because Microsoft promised to buy 10,000 widgets if you do.

A sign of a good leader is if you can bear bad news such as these unpleasant tidbits. The key: Be sympathetic.

"It's not the news that makes someone angry. It's the unsympathetic attitude with which it's delivered," Lowndes says. "Everyone must give bad news from time to time, and winning professionals do it with the proper attitude," she says.

Lowndes related how a neighbor smiled, told of a coming rain storm, and thereby squelched Lowndes, a picnic basket, and her sunny attitude.

Had her neighbor sympathetically told her about the coming rain, instead of smiling as he delivered the news, Lowndes would have appreciated the heads-up. Similarly, leave the shoulder-shrugging and finger-pointing in your desk drawer when you tell your bosses that there's going to be unexpected system downtime.

Instead, let your disappointed listeners rant, and sympathize with them. Then, after they've vented, find out how you and your team could mitigate the pain.

Consider bad news as a golden opportunity. It's a (would-be) CIO's time to shine. This is your chance to show that you get people, that you understand the way the business runs and what disparate individuals and departments need from IT, and that you're prepared to respond proactively to their concerns. As opposed to being in the default setting of many IT departments: i.e., reactive mode, only responding when things blow up.

Beyond these tips, there are loads of other methods of speaking and comportment that distinguish leaders. For example, you can:

  • Speak positively about mistakes and the lessons they brought you, instead of complaining
  • Avoid one-word answers. Instead, describe your project or job in a way tailored to interest whoever asks you, "So, what do you do?"

You can find this stuff in books such as Dale Carnegie's time-tested chestnut, How to Win Friends and Influence People. You can dive deep into the science behind interpersonal relations (A. Rodney Wellens' "Heart-Rate Changes in Response to Shifts in Interpersonal Gaze from Liked and Disliked Others," from Ammon Scientific's "Perceptual and Motor Skills ," issue 64, pp. 595–598, anyone?).

And you can put your shoulders back, stand tall, and impress the heck out of your coworkers with the posture of a leader.

* Are the two one and the same? Discuss.

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