Written by Tom Turner, CEO, BitSight
IT and security conversations are moving away from the confines of remote IT departments and are finding their way to the top of boardroom agendas. As they do so, CIOs need to carefully consider the way they communicate with other senior executives if critical IT initiatives are to receive that all important buy-in from the Board. In this article, I will offer guidance to CIOs who are required to obtain Board-level approval before implementing strategic IT projects.
CIOs are in a unique position within the C-suite. Their expertise and guidance can have a direct impact on the future of an entire organisation. As a result, and quite rightly so, CIOs and security professionals have secured a more important seat at the top table.
However, despite the fundamental importance of IT, many organisations continue to treat it separate from the rest of the business. One reason might be due to the difficulty other departments have in understanding the complexity of many IT functions. Nonetheless, failure by CIOs to deliver clear and persuasive proposals can risk projects being overlooked, a breakdown in communication and may ultimately lead to budget not being granted.
So here are my five recommendations for senior IT professionals when talking to the Board:
Also of interest: Tech vs humans: what works for cyber security?
Keep it short, sweet and salient
An idea is only as good as your ability to communicate it. Keep it short and to the point. Include only the salient facts. If, for example, you’re trying to illustrate potential risks to the business, then an objective measurement, for example, the use of security ratings, may help contextualise your case.
Know your audience and speak their language
It’s a good idea to consider all your arguments from the perspective of the executives in the room; don’t assume everyone has the same vision as you. For example, a CFO may be interested in driving organic growth, while a COO is more concerned with improving efficiency targets. If you can help others meet their objectives and minimise risks, you will secure more support than if you talk generalities.
A polished presentation should appeal to everyone in the room. Avoid talking in detail about technical features and focus on the wider benefits for the company. As soon as you mention the intricacies of cloud-based unified communications platforms or the workings of border gateway protocols, you risk losing your audience.
Consider how your proposal may impact others within the business and try to anticipate potential challenges. For example, will employees require additional training? How will new infrastructure impact the roles and responsibilities of staff? Will large capital investments require a reallocation of funds away from a major marketing effort? These externalities will be a driving force behind any eventual rejection of your proposal. Frame the value your plan brings to the company through a lens that’s aligned with both the IT department’s goals and those of other departments. In other words, speak the language of your audience.
If your plan has unintended negative consequences on operations beyond the scope of what you considered, there’s a sure chance it will meet with disapproval from senior executives. It’s essential to evaluate how even minor changes may impact an organisation, particularly if there’s a risk to customer service level agreements.
Focus on the positives. Not every unintended consequence of your initiative will be negative. For example, if you’re tasked with implementing an effective vendor risk management programme, this could help mitigate cyber risks and reduce potential data breaches; something senior execs will support.
Furnish the facts
You’ve heard the phrase, ‘All publicity is good publicity’. Well, that’s questionable. If your company hits the headlines because it has failed to implement adequate security protocols, resulting in a massive breach of data, then the fallout can be catastrophic.
In today’s connected world, cyber threats pose a constant danger for businesses of all sizes. CIOs can use this to their advantage when lobbying for programmes that will strengthen their security posture. Hard facts about the current cyber risk landscape will resonate with senior management. Information about internal threats and how third-party vendors can leave your organisation vulnerable should force any Board to sit up and listen and take you seriously.
Hitting the ‘suite’ spot
Major IT projects need partners and allies, not bystanders. Ensure you have the understanding and buy-in from all C-suite execs and that decisions haven’t simply been deferred to the CEO – something we refer to as ‘passive acceptance’.
Passive acceptance can have serious consequences for CIOs. Other executives might lose interest in an initiative as it progresses. Approval might be withdrawn, budgets changed, and resources reallocated, preventing IT departments from accomplishing their goals. CIOs should focus on bringing their colleagues on board with their ideas, as well as the details of the project itself. That means keeping other executives up-to-date on project progress and milestones long after approval has been granted.
Also of interest: How to communicate to the board
Being a CIO requires strong business instincts; something that serves them well in most situations. However, the same strategies that might work perfectly for other members of the C-suite cannot always be adapted for IT initiatives. CIOs wishing to improve communication with senior decision makers and secure buy-in from the Board should consider how their proposal might impact individuals within the C-suite, and not just the IT organisation. Likewise they should understand the unintended effects their initiative might have outside of their own department. They should tell the terrifying truth about cyber threats and use this to their advantage. And finally they should work to secure continued buy-in from board executives, not just project approval for one initiative.
Also of interest: Breaking into the mind of a hacker