On message: communication for CIOs

"Most leaders are unaware of how bad they are," says John Hamm. "If they were doctors, people would die. If they were chefs, no one would eat the food."

In this month's Harvard Business Review, Hamm, a partner at VSP Capital in San Francisco and author of the article "Why Entrepreneurs Don't Scale," boils down this leadership malaise to the inability to communicate five essential messages. He talked with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about what those messages are and what they mean to your IT organization.

You say that many leaders don't take the time to define specifically what they mean when they use general terms or cliches. What are the results of that?

Leaders, often in an unconscious or innocent way, undersupply the organization -- starve the organization -- not knowing they do it. One of the phenomena of leadership communication is that leaders assume those in the organization have better information than they usually have. Leaders speak in generalities because they assume that the depth of what they understand is understood in the organization. And people don't want to ask because they're afraid they'll look stupid. The result is that the rank and file are operating on a mix of whatever they got from the leader and whatever they had to make up or assume [in order] to fill in a full information set. This manifests as sloppy and slightly misdirected and imprecise behavior. There's a breakdown between what the leaders know and what the organization gets in terms of direction.

You highlight five areas in which you say clear communication can wield extraordinary influence on organizations. The first is organizational structure. What message does a leader need to give about an impending reorganization?

Most leaders allow the organization to speculate on an impending reorganization for way too long. The more time people have to know about a reorganization and speculate, the more the leader lets it become about politics instead of organizational resources.

The key is to depoliticize and depersonalize it into a mechanical reorganization of skills. It's about what the organization needs. It's about sets of resources with skills that need to be arranged. Do it quickly, concisely, impersonally and apolitically. People should have a day to hear about it and then get the information. Specifically address the organization's inclination to make it personal. Say, "Do not allow yourselves the luxury of interpreting this politically. I do not intend it that way."

Results is another loaded area. How should a leader communicate results?

Results, whether financial or operating results, are about the achievement of promised goals. The inclination for organizations is to interpret them as who wins and who loses. CIOs who issue a lot of blame cause people to cover up things they believe they will be personally blamed for. The medicine for that is to separate individual performance from the analysis of results around operating goals. Look at operating goals more diagnostically -- what went wrong, as opposed to who did something.

Deal separately with individual performance. To use a public setting as a place where individuals can get their asses handed to them is not useful. It changes the discussion from one where there's a chance people can learn something to one where they spend all their energy covering up.

If the CIO wants to collaborate at a peer level, he needs to appreciate that positional power is in the way. He has to find a way to unplug from being the boss. He has to communicate very specifically, "I'm an engineer as well as a VP of engineering." That lets his ideas exist at the same voltage as everyone else's.

What message do smart leaders give about time management?

What the organization has control over is what they choose to do, not how many hours there are in a day. If we scope a project wrong, we're not going to be able to make a day with 85 hours in it. If people are working as hard as they can and they're still not going to get there, let them feel some freedom and creativity in how they will get this done. Give them the ability to choose to do less or do it differently. In most high-achieving organizations, people can't work more, so talk about changing the scope rather than working longer, harder, more fatigued and more stupid.

The final message is about corporate culture. What should that message be, and why do so many leaders get it wrong?

Culture is not a project; it's a way people describe how well you've managed the company. Where leaders have power is in doing the right things from an organizational process management standpoint: having open and supporting staff meetings, having clear project plans where concerns are worked out, taking a stand for respectful behavior. The whole notion of culture for leaders at any level is this: Run the place in a way that has people feel good about working there, and people will say they love the culture.

But if you attempt to work on culture directly, like [it's] a "thing," you will screw it up. It boils down to three things: Hire well and realize the largest factor is quality of workforce. Have the group behave consistent with the way you say you're going to have it behave. People want to know what the rules are. There's freedom and safety when people understand that the environment has integrity.

Finally, create the phenomenon of winning. People in losing games don't have fun. There are exceptions, but if you're losing, it will generally be a crappy place to work. The converse isn't always true. It's not guaranteed that if you're winning, it will be a great culture, but if you're losing, it will be a lousy one. You have to create the experience of winning or the confidence that we're going to. In IT, you can create the phenomena of a successful department meeting its goals, well regarded in the company, with a reputation for performance. If over time a CIO can't figure out how to win, he won't keep the best players.

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