Educate your CXOs

I was chatting up the CIO of a large manufacturing company recently, and we got on the subject of who really runs his IT organization. He singled out two key IT executives, one in charge of the infrastructure side -- all the hardware, networking and moving parts -- and one in charge of the software side, where the data management, enterprise applications and business logic live.

Yet the goals for his dual managers were worlds apart. The infrastructure expert was charged with finding ways to tamp down costs and do everything "better, cheaper and faster", as the CIO put it. His software manager, on the other hand, was encouraged to experiment with new applications and, ultimately, to spend some of those savings from the hardware side on new stuff that could advance the business.

So, with the major bases covered, what exactly was left for this CIO to do? (I just had to ask.) "Ah," he said, with a big grin and no offence taken, "I'm in executive sales."

What he meant, of course, was that his time is spent in the role that all successful CIOs master -- that of business communicator, educator and guide for the so-called CXOs (that senior business lineup of CEOs, CFO, COOs, CMOs (chief marketing officer) and so forth). If the chief technologist isn't regularly playing Pygmalion with this bunch, the IT group is destined for a leadership change.

I realize that by this point in your career, you've heard and read -- ad nauseum, even -- plenty of well-meaning advice about the importance of educating business colleagues and speaking their language when you do it.

"As a CIO, I always have an agenda. You're crazy if you don't," says Rob Tabb of Ecolab, a $US3 billion-plus developer of cleaning and repair products. He describes using both formal and informal approaches to this fine art of educating CXOs, including one-on-one chats during coffee breaks and business lunches in addition to the more standard management council meetings. "You have to think of it as a campaign," Tabb said. "You have an end state you're trying to get to, and you think, How am I going to educate this group of executives to get them to a common point of understanding over time?"

That "over time" part is a particularly important point. The IT education of your business colleagues is a journey of 1000 conversations, not a destination arrived at after one big-bang strategy briefing. Your homework assignment is to think about where you are today on that journey. Are you ready to be in "executive sales"?