The first in a series
Effective CIOs all have their own style and approach to leadership. One thing they have in common is the ability to communicate well at all levels of their organizations. They understand that communication is a collaborative process, as much about asking questions as answering them; as much about listening as talking. It’s a conversation.
For IT professionals who began their careers as technologists, this is not always a natural act. In this series, we’ll talk with business technology leaders about their own experiences with communication and leadership — what they’ve learned over the course of their careers, what their most effective practices are, and how they’re helping their teams become great communicators too.
I recently caught up with CIO Ramon Baez to talk about how communication drives strategy and change at Kimberly-Clark.
Lundberg: Where does effective communication fit in to business/technology alignment?
Baez: First, company leaders have to put their heads together and develop a shared mindset and vision for the company. That includes what our values and key priorities are. You need to lay out that framework before moving forward.
The next piece is you have to communicate the framework not only at the top layer of management – that’s the beginning – but get feedback from them to determine if the approach will work in their part of the business or globe.
Kimberly-Clark is very focused on being a stronger company on the other side of this global economic recession, and we are very focused on how to execute this with our whole team. It’s essential to lay out the plan and the vision for all team members to understand.
Over the past year, we’ve been focused on better managing our supply chain; doing a better job of sourcing from a global perspective; and optimizing our processes throughout the organization. Looking ahead, we are cautiously optimistic about business conditions. We need to continue our focus and momentum and re-engage everyone in the organization around innovation, customers and brands, and developing our people.
If you think of effective communication as a series of links in a chain, where within the business ecosystem are the most common breaks?
There are two places where things get disconnected: at the top layer of management and at the supervisor/team leader level.
In my past, I have observed that if the senior leaders don’t believe the organization is moving in the right direction, then the rest of the organization is not going to get it. If that’s the case, you need to find out why, quickly. Talk to them, survey them anonymously. They all may have a different view, but see where you have some overlap; these are the areas you need to attack first. Just remember, if you go out and ask the question, you have to be able to handle the answer.
The same applies to the manager/supervisor level. If they don’t believe in what you’re doing, or they don’t trust your leadership, you’ll have a significant disconnect.
This happened at one organization I worked at. When we did the engagement survey with first-line managers, we found out they didn’t trust leadership and didn’t believe we were moving in the right direction. At the same time, their teams loved them. Employee surveys showed a high percentage of satisfaction with team leadership. We had to find out what we were doing wrong.
In that case, it turned out that because we were moving so fast, we were not doing leadership development with that level of managers, and we weren’t listening to them. We’d been doing too much one-way communication instead of listening to their ideas about what we needed to do differently. When they started seeing senior leaders listening to them and taking action, they then began to tell their teams how much they believed in what we were doing. This created the necessary momentum to move forward.
You spent most of your career in aerospace and defense. Did you have to learn a new language coming into a consumer products company?
No matter what the industry is, the IT part is very similar: It’s your job to get accurate information to the business leaders quickly and in the most effective and efficient way.
However, there are differences. When you move into a new industry, you have to understand three things:
- You have to understand the jargon – every industry has it, and even the same acronyms can mean different things in different parts of the same industry.
- You have to understand how that business makes money; if you don’t understand that, you won’t be able to communicate with business leaders.
- You have to understand their pain points.
So the first thing you need to do as part of successful communication is to listen well. At Kimberly-Clark, I spent the first 45 days travelling around the world to meet with the business folks first, then the IT team. The business leaders all had different things to say about IT.
Why do IT professionals often have trouble communicating with business colleagues?
Throughout my career, what I have seen is that many IT professionals may have started their careers very focused on the technology and not having to interact with their colleagues in the business. As they progress in their careers, relationship management and communication skills become just as important. At Kimberly-Clark, we provide relationship and conflict management training to help develop our IT professionals. We had 150 people go through this process last year, and we plan to do more in the future to make sure we continue to drive value for Kimberly-Clark from an IT perspective.
What are some classic mistakes IT professionals make, and what can a CIO do about that?
Speaking in general, we don’t develop our people to be prepared to have those conversations. One of the things we do is role play with members of our team before important meetings or engagements. I may ask, if the CEO or the CFO asks these questions, how would you respond to them? Many times the first answer is way off – too focused on the technology or speaking in a language the business people don’t understand. We coach them to put their focus on the business problem – “this is how we’re going to fix this process” or “this is what the customer is going to experience” rather than “this is the technology we’re rolling out.” If there’s one thing for IT professionals to remember, it’s to lead the conversation with what business capability they’re enabling, not with the project or solution.
It’s the CIO’s job to create an organization that is able to communicate in a way that fits with the company culture. You also must have a strong leadership team to be successful in executing communication well across a large enterprise.
What other issues do IS staff wrestle with?
Oftentimes, IT people simply don’t speak up because they don’t have the confidence to communicate effectively with their counterparts in the business. It’s our job to coach them to think about their audience and what that group of people is trying to do before they send out an e-mail or make a presentation. We brought our communications team in to help develop templates for messages coming out of IS, to make sure we’re addressing the things that matter to businesspeople trying to do their jobs.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about communication in the course of your career?
If you come across as arrogant or self-serving, you’re going to fail. A CIO needs to understand and speak to the hearts and minds of others. And to do that, you have to listen and understand. Communication is a process, not an event.
Ramon F. Baez has been chief information officer and vice president for information technology services of Kimberly-Clark Corp. since February 2007. He is responsible for leading Kimberly-Clark’s enterprise-wide information systems initiatives to support its future growth and to maximize the return on its information technology investments.
Ramon started his career at Northrop Grumman. Over the course of 25 years at the defense and aerospace leader, he assumed increasing responsibility for information services and data management, leading to his being named chief information officer for its electronic systems sensors sector. He served as CIO and VP for IT of Honeywell International Automation and Control Solutions group and, prior to joining Kimberly-Clark, as CIO of Thermo Fisher Scientific, where he was responsible for coordinating and directing worldwide information systems.
Mr. Baez holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from University of La Verne in California.