Communication skills are a make-or-break requirement for CIOs

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CIO Pieces of the Puzzle

Why do CIOs and CEOs have trouble communicating? The trouble lies with changing responsibilities as tech executives move up the ladder, says Manoj Garg, consulting CIO and managing partner of Virtual Information Executives, a company of ex-CIO consultants specializing in serving mid-size businesses. It's essential for CIOs to learn these skills he notes — he's seen poor communications lead to CIOs losing their jobs more than once.

Here's his take on the people skills CIOs need to learn.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Why are communications breakdowns between business and IT such a common problem?

Garg: The first reason is related to the leadership ability of the IT leader. As IT leaders advance in their careers from tech-focused roles to leadership roles with increasing responsibility, they must realize that a large part of their success depends on establishing strong lines of communication with senior executives in the business. This can only happen if they are people-oriented and spend a substantial amount of their time getting to know and developing strong trust relationships with their key internal customers. Knowing your customer is critical in any business.

The second is related to lack of IT savvy in business executives who may believe that IT is a back office function that cannot add true business value. These types of department heads are likely to not be open to establishing strong relationships with the IT leader and the IT folks.

TEP: What are some of the best strategies you've observed or used for creating more open lines of communication?

Garg: An important mechanism is IT governance implemented through an IT steering committee. Based on the size and needs of the organization, when an IT steering committee is set up with the right goals and charter, communications between business and IT is increased dramatically.

In addition IT leaders should seek out opportunities to get to know other executives in their organizations and create strong channels of communication. In larger companies, IT may even embed a technology liaison in a business division to serve as the conduit for bi-directional information flow.

TEP: You've consulted a lot of companies! Without naming names, what are some of the worst communication breakdowns you've seen?

Garg: At one public sector client, there was a huge language barrier between the CFO and the IT leader, who reported to the CFO. A critical project had been delayed six months, and the IT leader kept explaining that technical challenges were the reasons for delay. Naturally, the CFO could not understand the reasons for delay and was not able to do anything to assist, leading to deep frustration on both sides.

In another situation, the IT leader did not document well and kept critical systems information locked up in her head as a defensive strategy. An annual business process required knowledge and steps only the IT leader could perform. This led to the IT leader holding the rest of the organization hostage. Business leadership had no idea how to address the situation.

In both cases, unfortunately, the business leadership decided to make a change in the IT leadership, and we assisted the client very successfully with interim CIO services and the hiring of the permanent replacement.

TEP: What advice would you offer CIOs about how best to improve communications between the business and IT?

Garg: IT leaders should get out of their shell and go see other business leaders regularly to learn about what matters in the business — customers, products, markets and business processes. They should work on establishing strong personal relationships with business leaders so they can learn about challenges and opportunities to use technology for business success.

Manoj Garg is the Founder and Managing Partner of Virtual Information Executives, a consulting firm that specializes in helping clients achieve break-through business results through IT leadership. Manoj brings over thirty years of senior executive leadership skills and technology management experience with domestic and international operations to VIE's clients. He has worked at executive levels in four industries: manufacturing, hi-tech, leisure and higher education. Manoj’s Information Technology (IT) experience covers a broad array of skills, including Large Scale Technology Infrastructure Management, Outsourcing Management, Information Security Management, Program Management and Enterprise Resource Planning.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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