How to talk like a CIO

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."

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