3 storytelling lessons learned: CIOs share

Crafting a story that resonates and rallies a team takes patience, repetition, and reflection. Learn from winners of the Seattle CIO of the Year Awards
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CIO digital transformation

Effective storytelling in IT can help leaders win buy-in for an idea, rally their teams to take on a tough project, and make work meaningful for people on the front lines. But getting everyone on board with your vision is rarely as simple as telling a single story. It takes patience, repetition, reflection, and practice to hone this valuable core skill.

We asked CIOs who recently won the 2021 Seattle CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards what storytelling victories from their career they are proud of. The awards were presented by the Seattle CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

Read on for their storytelling advice for other CIOs.

1. Be patient: Change stories are hard

Corporate CIO of the Year

Diane Tschauner

Diane Tschauner, CIO, Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic: My leadership style is one of partnership and collaboration to help ensure success for the organization and the IT teams. For my department, my role is a partner but also a coach that provides structure, guidance, and the opportunity to learn and execute on a strategic direction. I have high expectations and expect everyone understands their purpose on the team, works hard, and continues to look for areas of improvement.

One victory in my career I am most proud of involves an area for improvement and my IT infrastructure team. I saw a need to modernize our infrastructure, and that included leveraging cloud services. It was going to mean a huge change and strategic shift in direction, and it wasn’t a popular decision at first.

After articulating the vision of providing our organization with technology that could be developed, deployed, and maintained more nimbly, we now have some of our applications remotely hosted and staff resources are freed-up to better support other organizational opportunities. This change wasn’t easy, as staff first felt they were outsourcing their own jobs. But with continued coaching, talking about the reason and importance of the change, and envisioning the future, they embraced the effort and were highly successful in completing the nine month long initial project. We are all discovering that digital transformation isn’t easy from multiple fronts.

The best tips I can provide to a new leader would be to first develop the necessary trust and respect of your team and allow them to develop it with you. Understand your teams and be willing to take them out of their comfort zone. With the right balance of coaxing, vision of the end goal, and the potential for personal growth, you can be successful. You need to also listen to your team’s input, and don’t be afraid to adjust the vision. Lastly, one of the most critical pieces is to encourage and recognize small steps during the change, because change is hard for everyone.

2. Make it meaningful: Find an analogy that resonates

Healthcare CIO of the Year

BJ Moore

BJ Moore, EVP & CIO, Providence: Storytelling allows us to communicate complex concepts clearly and compellingly to a broad set of audiences. Over two years ago, when I first joined Providence, I quickly realized that before we could fully accelerate towards modernizing and innovating, we needed to tackle much of the complexity of our legacy app and technology ecosystems, lack of standards, basic processes, and significant technical debt. This led us to outline our strategy as: Simplify, Modernize, Innovate.

While this quickly caught on and became our call to action, I felt we still needed a way to make this concept resonate better, particularly with non-technical audiences. Eventually, I realized that a good analogy to represent this was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s concept illustrates how as humans we need to meet our basic physiological and safety needs – such as food, water, and shelter – before we can address our psychological needs for belonging, love and esteem. Only when those needs are met are we able to reach our full potential through self-actualization. This analogy has served us well to set the context and illustrate the rationale behind our strategy and prioritization.

My recommendation to other IT leaders is to first identify key ideas that underpin your strategy and as such require strong buy in and support across multiple audiences. Then, on your own and with your team, brainstorm potential analogies or comparable narratives that are well known and easy to relate to, which can be part of a consistent talk track. This goes a long way in bringing people onboard with a message.

3. Keep listening and learning 

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Lisa Wernli

Lisa Wernli, EVP & CIO, Wireless Advocates & Car Toys: I am proud of developing a functional IT team of individuals from very diverse backgrounds and professions. Each person brings a unique point-of-view to the team and provides a niche that amplifies the team to greater collective capability. The notion that the whole is greater than the sum of each part really embodies our team-think. In the last year, we have effectively structured our IT team around functional system verticals and empowered a team culture that has provided enormous flexibility and scalability during the most highly transformational time in our company.

For other IT leaders who want to hone this skill, my advice is to listen and learn. No one leader can know nor direct every complex aspect of information technology. Take time to truly listen to the perspectives of team members, allow them to execute and operate their knowledge within and across the organization, and guide collaborative outcomes. Be humble and retrospective in taking information and fostering continuous learning of yourself as a leader and others across the organization to empower the whole team.

[ Are you telling the right story? Learn when it's time to try a new approach: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.