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Managing up and sideways: 7 tips for accelerating your IT career

If you want executive buy-in, you need to learn to manage up. Experienced CIOs and other tech leaders offer advice for building healthy, positive relationships with the enterprise C-suite.

What are the best ways for technology executives to manage up and across their organizations?

I often ask that question when I lead panel discussions at CIO conferences. Ten years ago, the answers usually included advice such as “Take your boss to lunch at least one a month,” “Play golf with the other executives at your company,” “Wear expensive suits,” and “Never talk about technology.”

Back then, CIOs and CTOs were looking for “a seat at the table.” They yearned for respect. They wanted to be treated as equals in the corporate C-suite.

Today, technology executives have their seats at the table. In many corporations, they have the same perks and privileges as their C-level peers. They have also learned that with great power comes great responsibility. The expectations are far higher than ever before.

For example, the C-suite expects technology executives to speak in terms that relate directly to the company’s business objectives. If you’re a CIO, or aspire to be one, you need to explain precisely how IT helps the company drive revenue, reduce costs, open new markets, and gain significant advantages over competitors.

Additionally, the art of presenting has changed. In the past, CIOs cruised through presentations by relying on complicated diagrams and largely incomprehensible jargon. Nowadays, the C-suite expects the CIO to bring working prototypes and tangible proof that new technologies deliver real business value.

Moreover, today’s C-level executives—CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and CMOs—are much more knowledgeable about technology than were previous generations of senior managers. They know that tech can make or break a company’s fortunes.

Norm Fjeldheim is senior vice president, CIO, and head of global facilities at Illumina, a San Diego-based company that makes integrated systems for analyzing genetic variation and biological function. “Our executives are very technical. They really know what technology can do,” he says. “They’ll tell me about another company that’s doing something with technology that we aren’t doing and they’ll ask me, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’ Frankly, I like being pushed to do more with technology.”

As the value of technology becomes more widely understood and accepted across the enterprise, the role of the technology executive is evolving. It’s no longer enough to be a great technologist; you also have to be a great manager.

I asked tech leaders and managers about their strategies for managing colleagues, peers, and higher-ups in the modern corporation. Here are seven takeaways that can help your career as a tech leader.

1. Context is critical

“Your non-technical colleagues often struggle to understand the business value of a technology product or service, so you need to set the context. Take the time to walk them through the exact business outcomes they can expect,” says Ramon Baez, who in 2016 retired from his position as senior vice president and global CIO at HP. “Too often, we talk about ROI or internal rate of return, which are essentially financial terms. It’s important to remember that our colleagues are looking for clarity. They want to know how the technology will help them achieve a business outcome.”

2. Know your audience

Always start with the problem you’re solving and its impact on the business. Explain the value proposition,” says Mariya Tarakanova, principal, global technology innovation, at Mercer, the world's largest human resources consulting firm. “You need to know what they want and what they care about. Ask them upfront.

"Then explain the value proposition,” says Tarakanova, who was recognized as one of 50 rising stars on the 2018 CIO Ones to Watch list. “If you can’t explain the value proposition, you might as well stay home.”

3. Don’t oversimplify

Ed Amoroso, CEO of TAG Cyber, a security consulting firm, sees danger in oversimplification. “We’re in a weird point in time where we still give most executives a pass on understanding technology. From my perspective, that’s not acceptable,” says Amoroso, who previously was CSO at AT&T. “You can’t simply walk into a boardroom and start speaking in pure technology terms. But you shouldn’t twist complex issues and oversimplify them until they become vacuous. Somewhere in the middle is a healthy balance.”

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4. Engage face-to-face

“You have to break down the barriers and spend quality time with your colleagues and peers,” says Mike Fabrico, a former technology exec at Nasdaq. In today’s decentralized workplace, management and travel have become inseparable. “I wanted to meet directly with the members of our R&D team,” says Fabrico, now director of technology at TrapX, a cybersecurity company, “so I traveled to Tel Aviv and sat down with them, individually. As we spoke with each other, we understood more about our mutual needs.”

5. Inspire trust

Treat your colleagues as partners. “You can’t go into the boardroom and start throwing people under the bus,” says the CISO of a large financial services firm. Today, almost every technology solution has multiple sponsors, champions, and stakeholders. Make sure they know what you’re going to tell the board so they aren’t unpleasantly surprised.

6. Focus on results

Sandy Silk, director of IT security education and consulting at Harvard University, recommends that you give attention to results ahead of technology.

“Does someone really need to know how encryption algorithms work in order to understand the value of encryption? For most people, digital technology is like driving a car: You don’t have to know how an internal combustion engine works to get safely from point A to point B,” Silk says. “Technology is a platform for helping the business achieve its goals and vision. Our job as tech leaders is enabling processes. We shouldn’t become a source of frustration.”

7. Serve on boards

Senior technology executives who genuinely want to improve their management and communication chops should consider serving on corporate boards, says Baez. In 2016, he joined the boards of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. “It can be incredibly helpful to sit on the board of another company or a nonprofit,” he says.

Being certified as a board member demonstrates to your own executive team and board that you know how to communicate with them, says Baez. It also helps you understand what they’re thinking and what they’re looking for. “Now they’re seeing you as a fellow board member. That changes the whole equation,” he adds.

In modern corporations, technology executives are expected to bring senior-level management skills to the table. When the tech industry was in its early days, leadership meant hunkering down and writing code. Today, the rules of the game are more nuanced. You still need to know technology, but you also need the soft skills required for interacting effectively with people at every level of the enterprise.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.