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.

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"Tech is actually a great career for strategic perspective," says Susan Doniz, chief information, digital and product officer at Aimia, a Montreal-based firm that develops customer loyalty programs for clients worldwide.

"I always said, 'I don't want to work in IT' -- I was extremely interested in business processes, in how a business functions," says Doniz, who came to Aimia from Procter & Gamble Canada, where she was CIO. "But my path led me through tech, and it ended up being a good fit." Particularly in global organizations where technology touches every department and function, "you can see every part of the company -- logistics, R&D, sales, international." That perspective, Doniz says, is a crucial element to building strategic insight.

Know What the Business Really Wants

CIOs and career specialists agree that IT leaders can hardly be blamed for their lack of focus on strategic vision, given the way they've typically functioned within the organization up until recently.

"Historically, CIOs have been recognized and incentivized by technical achievements and a technical focus," observes Tim Peterson, executive vice president and CIO at Wellmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield provider doing business in Iowa and South Dakota. "That hasn't encouraged a great deal of business, market or industry focus."

The easiest way to change that, say Peterson and other CIOs, is to flip it on its head and always think from a business, rather than a technological, point of view.

Stuart Beesley, interim CIO at Smiths Group, a global technology company headquartered in London, remembers well the first time that point was hammered home for him.

About nine years ago, Beesley was part of a team trying to launch a business transformation program for a particular division of Smiths. "The senior group colleague [on the business side] just could not understand what we were doing for him, and why," Beesley recalls. "I felt like I was banging my head against the wall."

Away from the office, Beesley was able to reflect on the situation, and he realized the miscommunication was happening around the way the project's outcomes were being described. "It was being pitched as a supply chain transformation, underpinned by ERP, with an opportunity to reduce headcount by eliminating touchpoints," he says -- a description that wasn't resonating with the senior manager.

"I realized I had to turn that whole thing on its head and use business terms to say, 'This is going to work for you in this way and deliver these benefits,'" Beesley says. By enumerating the process improvements and business outcomes, he was able to get the buy-in he was looking for. Lesson learned: "If you're feeling frustrated," he says, "you need to step back and say, 'What am I not communicating here?'"

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