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Leadership Communication: From Ideas to Action

Communicating effectively with business colleagues has ranked as one of CIOs' top three critical success factors for as long as I've been tracking these things -- and I've been tracking them for a long time. I've wondered over the years why this issue hasn't gone away. Why is it so damn hard for IT leaders to get their message across?

First of all, this is not just a CIO problem. People in general are terrible at conveying a concept or message intact from their brain to that of their "listener" (a misused term if ever there was one). As Celtics coach Red Auerbach used to say, "it's not what you say, it's what they hear." Influencing what people hear involves a lot more than just forming the right words.

To communicate successfully requires navigating a virtual land of ogres and sirens, often without a map. The territory between two brains is populated with two lifetimes of context, experience and expectation, and if you don't understand any of that, your message will have a tough time reaching its destination in anything like its intended form.

What makes this more difficult for people who choose careers in IT is that they are typically strong analytical thinkers. This reinforces the idea that a well-reasoned proposal that "makes sense" must naturally be accepted. Wrong! Much of business and, indeed, human interaction, has nothing to do with reason at all. It has to do with intuition and "gut feel" and is influenced by examples and stories. Don't get me wrong, you have to have good data to back up your position, but don't for a minute think that's all -- or even the most important part -- of your message.

Your message will have a much better chance of penetrating the thicket of your audience's biases and defenses if you leave yours behind. Whatever the form (dialogue in a meeting; a written document; an e-mail; a speech), a message that is spare, direct and other-focused is less likely to get hung up along the way.

Effective communication both requires and creates engagement. Good communicators show people where they fit into the picture, how a new initiative will affect them and how their own actions will contribute to it, and thus to the organization's success. It takes them beyond buy in to action, building essential momentum behind the effort.

Getting from ideas to action is what leadership communication is all about.

Five Steps to Successful Communication

  1. Put in the work to map the territory (understand your audience's context) before you begin.
  2. Leave your own biases and defenses behind.
  3. Choose your time and place. If you can limit the distractions competing for your audience's attention, your message will have a better chance of getting through.
  4. Make sure your audience is really listening. If not, why not, and what can you do about it?
  5. Show people where they fit into the story -- how the change will affect them and how they will help create the change.
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Comments

  1. One of the drums that I’ve been beating lately is understanding the audience and style of communication needed; ie “boardroom or ballroom.” In other words, is the communication a small group discussion or more of an informative broadcast? I think that CIOs who have come up through the IT organization have deep knowledge on the “how” things are done, process, project plans, Gantt charts, etc. “How” discussions tend to drive one-way, detailed, busy discussions and slideware. One the other hand, “why” and “what” conversations are more about asking questions and having rich discussions. The resulting slides are more outlines, if they are even needed at all. Personally I have worked to become more what/why oriented and advise CIOs to do the same.

    Thanks Abbie for a great and much needed topic.

    -Chris
    CIO Dashboard

  2. That’s an interesting distinction to make. In general I’d probably put “what” and “how” together, but I agree when it comes to IT, the “how” is much more likely to be left to IT alone, while everyone should take part in the “what” discussion. Thanks for the note!

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