Communication is an underrated skill, but it's as important in the CIO as any other executive role.
Talking to the board, the CEO or whoever represents the end point for decision making in your organisation can be nerve-wracking. Not only do they both hold the purse strings and expect results, they often have firm ideas of how the business should be run. Moving them in a different direction can be like trying to steer the Titanic.
Perhaps the most difficult part in talking to a board is aligning each of their demands - and challenges - in a way that satisfies everyone.
"It's really about addressing each one of those individual problems in a holistic view," says Sagittarius CTO Kingsley Hibbert. "What I've seen sometimes is that you present an approach, but you only focus in on one area of the board? Everyone's got their own KPIs and their own agendas, right? You kind of need to address all of them individually, but stitch it together."
From a tech perspective, that might mean a variety of different solutions: a data platform, CRM, ERP or new CMS. But above all else, you need to keep the end goal in mind: not the tech, but the customer.
"The touch point for me is always the customer. As [important] as your tech is, it's not dealing with what your customers need; it's just your tech, and nothing else.
"Whatever those individual board challenges are, from a tech perspective, it's saying, 'How do each one of your products or solutions...leverage up to deliver that great customer experience at the top?' That's the point which, from the outside, your customers see."
Keep this in mind when talking to the board, especially if they're all demanding different things from you as an IT leader.
"What I've seen some times when the boardroom is not united is it breaks down, because they just want a new shiny website, but others want a new CRM, or data, and suddenly you get this really fragmented organisation."
In that situation you may need to - gently - remind the board of the overall goal. Kingsley has a cheat for that.
"That for me works because the CEO has set the vision or the direction, and I can always use those values to bring everybody back together. When they start to say, ‘But I don't really care about that', you remind them: ‘Your mission is this, and that's what you need to achieve from a tech point of view as well.'"
Remember the value gates
A particularly tricky area for IT leaders to navigate is making a business case for investment, which can require being "kind of forceful" with the board.
Senior leadership tends focus firmly on results, and will cut their losses if they don't materialise. It's the IT leader's job to make sure they do.
"It's all about phasing it [in], but then having real defined gates in terms of the value. One of the worst things is saying you're going to commit to a programme for three years, but not really putting that value or value steps at good juncture points through that journey."
It's no good saying, "We're three years in, how have we done?" Instead, says Kingsley, make sure you have frequent checks to ensure you're getting value from a project and can demonstrate that to the board.
"You need to be kind of forceful with the board to say if it's not right you need to pull it out, rather than continuing with that programme, burning through your investment that you've got signed off, and then them saying ‘The value you said we were going to get at the beginning, that signed this off? We're not getting it, and it's now two years in.'"
Kingsley has seen executives "write off £20 million" because they haven't seen value.
"We then need to replatform and look at alternatives, and you've got this massive cycle of investigation...which you've done probably 18 months ago or two years ago, and suddenly this cost just keeps recurring. Some organisations can't afford to do that in that cycle."
Part of Kingsley's role is to talk to organisations about limiting the urge to strip out an underperforming asset, so the investment they would have put into evaluating a new piece of kit can instead go into their business.
"That's a real challenge, I'm finding... [but] I'm a believer in maximising whatever investments you've already made."