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Tips for speaking like a business strategist

As an IT pro, you know you need to think strategically, but can you speak strategically, too? CIOs share advice on how to catch the ear of senior management.

February 10, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - The message is coming in loud and clear from every corner of the tech and business sectors, from every career coach, hiring manager and trusted peer: IT pros who are serious about advancement need to think and speak strategically.

Keeping the lights on? Yawn. Transforming business processes? No-brainer. What organizations need in an IT leader now is a business strategist who can serve as a trusted colleague of, rather than merely a tech adviser to, C-suite executives.

"There has been a great movement toward strategic CIOs as executive teams recognize the crucial role that IT plays," says John Baldoni, chairman of the leadership development practice at N2growth, a Wilmington, Del.-based management consultancy.

Having being invited to the table, IT leaders need to contribute more than just operational expertise, says Baldoni, who has written several books on leadership. "It's not just 'What kind of tech solutions can I present?' it's knowing the mission, vision and values of the company, understanding its strategic imperative."

The message is getting through to IT professionals. In an exclusive Computerworld survey of 489 IT professionals conducted in August and September of 2013, respondents said the top three non-IT skills that they believe will make them most valuable are leadership and strategic thinking (cited by 24% of those polled), connecting with customers (16%) and analytical thinking (15%).

Moreover, 52% of the respondents said they believe the skill set that will best advance their IT careers is a business or soft skill, 32% said it would be an IT or technical skill, 12% said a skill that's specific to their industries, and 4% said they didn't know.

That said, IT professionals can be forgiven for wondering how they're supposed to add "articulate strategic imperatives" to a to-do list already overflowing with managing their teams, interacting with business partners, wrangling with vendors, budgeting, benchmarking and, as always, spinning up systems and services efficiently and effectively.

And even once they do manage to shift their mindset from functional to strategic, how do they convey that transformation, short of busting into the boardroom, Buddy the Elf-style, and shouting their ideas to a table of stunned executives?

Computerworld interviewed several seasoned CIOs to discover when they first emerged as business strategists and how they share that vision, both with their IT staffers and their C-suite colleagues.

The good news, the CIOs agree, is that IT pros are well positioned to learn how to both think strategically and speak strategically.

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Career Advice

Create Your Own Opportunities

You have ideas, but how do you bring them to the attention of the people who matter? IT leaders share some tips:

Raise your hand early and often for special projects and, once on the team, try to inch your role closer to the business side, advises Tim Peterson, EVP and CIO at Wellmark.

Once on a project, don't be shy about approaching key stakeholders directly. Ask questions, share your ideas and solicit their opinions, says Stuart Beesley, interim CIO at Smiths Group.

Take advantage of departmental promotions, staff changes and reorganizations. Peterson recently realigned Wellmark's IT department around multidisciplinary teams, creating a good opportunity for individuals to enhance their strategic roles.

If your company has a mentorship program, use it as an opportunity to forge a close relationship with a senior thought leader, says Tom Van Winkle, director of information security at Alliance Data's Retail Services division. If not, be brave and initiate one-on-one conversations with higher-ups to vet your ideas.

Ask to take part in professional development programs and attend industry conferences. If you do get to take advantage of such opportunities, be proactive in sharing what you learn. Debbie Madden, former CEO at software programming house Cyrus Innovation, was pleased when an employee who'd attended off-premises training set up an informal brown-bag lunch to share his knowledge. Such sessions are a good way to interact with business colleagues you might otherwise not encounter frequently.

Fill a gap. Look around at what's not being done in your company -- then do it, advises Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia. Particularly in small or fast-growing companies, "there are lots of gaps in terms of what needs to be done and nobody doing it." If you worry you're not fully qualified, "fake it until you make it," she says.

Tracy Mayor

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