6 Tips: How To Speak C-Suite

To get better results in budget and project negotiations and make career path progress, IT pros must learn to speak less tech and more "boss."

Kevin Casey, Contributor

May 22, 2013

7 Min Read

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LinkedIn: 10 Important Changes

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LinkedIn: 10 Important Changes

Tired of tight budgets, project bureaucracy and career stasis? You might need to stop talking tech and learn to speak "boss."

Alas, there's no Rosetta Stone course or Google Translate option for learning the language of the C-suite. You'll have to roll up your sleeves; we're here to help. It's worth the effort. During a recent webinar on the topic of "talking boss" over at IT pros' social network Spiceworks, 87% of participants said they'd been turned down for a technology funding request during the past two years. Another 64% said they had zero input into their company's planning and budgeting process.

If that sounds familiar, it's time for a language lesson. In an interview, Spiceworks CFO Jeff Dean shared these insights for better communicating with nontechnical executives and management.

1. Remember: The Bosses Have Bosses, Too

"The CFO is not a mythical figure who is 100% in control," Dean said. "They seem like these spooky gatekeepers, and a lot IT pros probably have no relationship with their CFO."

That can lead to plenty of incorrect assumptions about strategy, planning and how decisions get made within the organization. Bear in mind: the CFO and other higher-ups almost always answer to other stakeholders, whether that means the CEO, the board, investors, debt-holders or other constituents. Identifying the boss' bosses lays the groundwork for understanding how the higher-ups are being judged -- a crucial step toward speaking their language.

[ What is a "good" job? Hint: it's not just money. What IT Staffs Want More Than Salary. ]

2. Start The Conversation

Dean stressed the importance for IT pros to open a dialogue with nontechnical management to improve IT's standing within the organization. The best way to do so is not in terms of bits and bytes, but "under the guise of wanting to help the CFO and organization meet their goals and objectives for the year," Dean said. "Part of that is understanding what those metrics are that the CFO [or other executive] measures themselves by -- how do they define the year?" Some common examples might include revenues, operating expenses and profit. But the list will vary by organization and industry; education environments, for example, would likely care more about learning outcomes and other measurements than strict financial data. No matter what measurements your company uses, they become the lexicon of the executive suite.

Along with that, it's also critical to know your company's budgeting and planning process. While startups and other smaller firms sometimes operate under some form of "managed chaos," many organizations have a "budget season." If you're not aligning your IT requests with that calendar, you're less likely to get what you want during the course of the year.

3. Translation Strategy #1: Communicate In Terms Of Business Goals

A firm grasp of the company's goals -- and how progress is measured -- essentially generates the vocabulary of "speaking boss." Budget requests, project plans and other communications stand a better chance of approval if expressed in terms of corporate metrics and keywords rather than technical jargon. In other words: Show, in plain language, how Project X or New Application Y will help meet corporate goals. Save the technical stuff for IT meetings.

"[IT pros] need to figure out what those measurements are so that they can equate back the projects that they feel they need and how they impact those measures," Dean said. "[Don't] express the project in terms of 'hey, this quad core processor is fabulous and I've got this many reads-per-second going to the hard drive now.' That doesn't mean anything to a CFO."

4. Translation Strategy #2: Communicate In Terms Of Risk

Speaking in terms of business goals and metrics is the optimist's strategy; communicating everything that can go wrong, though, can be equally effective. Help the bosses understand IT risks in non-IT terms -- What happens to employee productivity, website transactions or other business currencies if that server or this application fails? Dean offered an example from within Spiceworks: the company's director of IT wanted funds for more effectively backing up the organization's Active Directory deployment. When discussing it with Dean, he laid off the IT lingo in favor of terms the C-suite could easily understand: If Active Directory goes down, here's how many employee hours would be lost.

"That's expressing the risk to me in terms I can understand," Dean said. A clearer understanding of the business and of how the executive team is assessed -- along with an open, ongoing dialogue -- will also foster far more options for expressing return on investment (ROI) proofs or otherwise making business cases for IT investments. There's a writing 101 lesson that applies here: "Show, don't tell." With solid grounding in your company's goals and metrics, you paint the ROI picture and let the higher-ups connect the dots themselves. Typically, Dean said, that comes from showing a productivity or efficiency gain tied to corporate objectives -- or risks that threaten achieving those objectives.

Another example from inside Spiceworks: The firm's CTO had noticed that the Spiceworks website was averaging about six seconds per page refresh; he thought he could get it down to two seconds with the appropriate resources. While he couldn't explicitly prove ROI for the initiative, the CTO and CFO discussed the project in terms of how it could improve the company's main revenue stream: Advertising.

"It was very logical for me to quickly get that if the refresh rate can be cut down by two-thirds, I'm going to generate more page views, keep people within my environment longer, be able to provide them more useful information faster, [and] that's going to help my overall traffic a bunch," Dean said. "That was another way of expressing ROI in a business measurement that I could relate to."

Consider the terms most applicable to your business -- labor hours, order processing times, compliance, risk and so forth -- and communicate IT strategy and requests accordingly.

6. Think Like An Owner

Beyond budgets and project approvals, speaking "boss" can help elevate IT's overall stature within an organization -- and also be a boon for IT pros that aspire to one day become the boss. "You've got to think like an owner," Dean said. Again, that means you need to know more than your network or other IT responsibilities -- see the company's big picture. If you feel you're too far down the chain of command to be having lunch with the C-suite, at least start with your higher-ups within IT. Find out if they're talking to nontechnical management. (If they're not, suggest they start.) Dean believes most executives will welcome the input.

"[If I was a CTO], I would still want to know from the guy running the network what he sees, because there are plenty of things he sees that the CTO doesn't see," Dean said. While Dean can't imagine writing a budget without IT input, the 64% poll figure above shows it does happen -- frequently, even. Dean half-joked that his next webinar will be for CFOs and other execs on why they shouldn't create budgets without soliciting IT's input. "You don't know what you don't know," Dean said.

It comes back to starting that conversation in terms the bosses can understand. Dean acknowledged that this can be intimidating. "It absolutely is," Dean said. It may be easier to start the discussion in the form of a question, or in the form of a helping hand: "How can IT act as a catalyst for achieving our corporate goals?" or "Hey, I want to better understand our objectives and metrics so I can ensure we don't have any unforeseen technology risks that might hinder success." Dean believes most executives will embrace this type of dialogue -- again, provided it's in a language they can understand.

"All but the most curmudgeonly managers will really welcome when someone comes to them just wanting to be a part of the aggregate solution," Dean said. "That's generally pretty well-received."

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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