Uncommonly followed common sense tips on CIO communication

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed, along with other experienced senior technology executives, by CIO magazine for my thoughts on communication mistakes still made by CIOs. Some great ideas came out in the article, but when it comes to communication (see tip #1 below), there’s always more to say. So here goes.

  • Communication can always be worked on and improved. I was at one company where we did a semiannual employee satisfaction survey. Even better, the company was admirably dogged about implementing specific measures to address areas of dissatisfaction that emerged from the survey results. But in every single survey, the number one vote-getter was the need to improve intracompany communications, no matter what initiatives were spawned to improve them. Communication is an ongoing challenge and necessity.

  • Don’t just communicate upwards. Communication with your team is every bit as vital as your communication to management and to peers. You need your team to have a clear and common understanding of the goals, as well as getting their active contribution and buy-in on the necessary approach to getting there. You can’t go it alone.
  • Hierarchy is actually helpful; use it actively. Do your best to avoid providing explicit nuts-and-bolts-level direction to staff members other than your direct reports. Jumping in and telling people at all levels what to do confuses people mightily, undermines the authority of your direct reports, and increases the likelihood of mixed signals. And it’s just plain inefficient. Early in my career, I was a director responsible for a major week-long software rollout in one of my company’s regional offices. The project manager of the initiative was one of my direct reports. But then, the stakes were high enough that the CIO decided to fly down, and of course, the regional VP of IT was there as well. So for a week, we had four management-level people all sitting in every meeting, each trying to actively demonstrate they were in charge and look good to the others. Or, there’s out-and-out, from-the-top, intentional bypassing of the chain of command: Amazingly, I’ve seen cases of a CEO setting up a task force without involving or even informing the people who managed the members of the task force. Talk about undermining!
  •  Be clear about what’s actually a directive and what’s just an exploration. Dawn Lepore, CEO of Drugstore.com, recently spoke in an interview about how she couches her direction to her staff as to whether it’s a “a light bulb or a gun”. “A light bulb means this is just an idea I had, so think about it, see if you think it’s a good one. Either follow up or don’t, but it’s just an idea. A gun is, I want you to do this.” Surprisingly, people often can’t tell the difference on their own. As a leader, you typically want most meetings, particularly at a senior level, to feature open brainstorming, a free exchange of out-of-the-box ideas, but that means it’s all the more important to carefully identify what emerges as actionable initiatives and what things continue to be simply thrown around as possibilities.
  • Put it in writing. Supplement the directions you give in meetings and one-on-ones with a clear and succinct written summary. Doing this both clarifies and makes an unambiguous record of what you’ve asked for, and accurately communicates it more broadly than just to the people who happened to be in the meeting. It’s a way of demonstrating that you’re declaring yourself accountable. Doing so is vastly preferable to having your people run around claiming “The CIO wants this.” (And with some, once they discover that such a line grants them all sorts of vicarious power, they’ll tend to overuse it, and at inappropriate points). I’ve seen a lot of ineffective leaders follow some kind of old-school “just tell them” mentality, and they cause significant confusion in the ranks by failing to put things in writing. And it’s no wonder that with this approach, which evolves into a kind of “Telephone” game, they’re often disappointed in what they get.

Oral communication is often vague and ambiguous. Written communication is on the record. Strive to go on the record as much as possible.

  • Be utterly clear about who owns the execution of the initiative, and who will be making specific lower-level related decisions. Most notably, avoid having people think that everything needs to be cleared with you at all junctures. For most initiatives, your role is to set the overall goal, not to shepherd day-to-day the specific process of getting there. Lack of clarity here is common, even when everything else is done right.

Common sense, all these tips, no? The thing about common sense, though, is that it’s often frightfully uncommon.


  1. I really like some of the nuggets that you have in this post. Basically, I think I’m taking away that it would be wise to summarize in writing at the end of each meeting:
    -what is the action item?
    -light bulb or gun?
    -who owns execution?
    -who is making lower-level decisions?
    -when is it happening?

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Yes, those are good steps, in a nutshell. I’m always amused when I see executives that resist doing those things, because when you do them, the outcome is invariably better and everyone appreciates the clarity.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. The “don’t just communicate upwards” point is a really good one, especially as CIOs double down on their efforts to (re)define their roles and position in the executive ranks.

    Last year I read a book called “The Mission, The Men and Me” written by Pete Blaber, an Amgen exec and former Delta Force commander, who talks about the importance of listening to the men on the ground. There are some good lessons for business execs too.

    As always, very thorough and practical advice, Peter.


Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.