Communications 101

In the daily life of a CTO, communication skills come into play in all kinds of situations. In a typical day, the CTO deals with bosses (usually the CEO), employees and customers. Although all of these interactions operate on a common foundation – trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, and accountability – the nuances in these interactions can be quite different.

I have learned a lot over the years about effectively communicating to nontechnical CEOs. If the average CTO has five minutes of spare time a day, then the average CEO has one or two. The primary rule for communicating with a CEO is simple: Respect his or her time by being concise in all of your communications.

If you are seeking approval for something – whether it is equipment, a new hire, or a major new product – and your proposal is 10 pages long, it is unlikely to ever be read, much less approved. Include basic ROI analysis on that page if you’re dealing with a cost, and include revenue projections on the page if you’re dealing with a revenue-generating initiative. If your proposal is 20 pages, you trim it down to one. Never provide more than one page on anything unless it is requested. The CEO will let you know if he or she wants more (and be ready for it), but he or she generally will not. Strong, compelling ideas generally fit on one page. Similar rules apply for e-mail, except e-mails should be even shorter if possible – stick to a short paragraph. If you need more space than that, you probably need to schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss the topic at hand – face time is still valuable and necessary.

A CTO’s communications with employees are quite different than those with the CEO. In my experience, employees want to know as many details as possible, and the CTO should try to communicate appropriate information when it makes sense. In general, the CTO should try to put the work of his employees in the context of the “big picture” view of what the company is doing. This gives the employees a sense of their own contributions and also paints a picture of why certain decisions are being made. If your company has been experiencing cutbacks and layoffs, make sure that your employees understand the financial context of those decisions and what the expectations are for the future. Generally, arming your employees with this kind of information makes them feel more secure and involved.

And, bottom line, always listen to your employees’ concerns and respond to them honestly. Listening is something that we can all improve upon. (Hint to employees of a CTO: Read the section about communicating with the CEO and use those pointers with your CTO.)

Finally, a CTO should never neglect communication with customers. At InfoWorld, that means that I interact regularly with both our readers and our advertisers. As InfoWorld readers, I interact regularly with you via this column, by meeting you at conferences, and by reading and responding to the e-mails you send each week. Just minutes before completing this column, I moderated a breakfast panel discussion on storage technology for a group of advertisers and agencies who are marketing these technologies to our readers. Although my own schedule is usually very tight, I wouldn’t be doing my job as CTO if I spent all my time on internal issues. As I have written in this space before, the CTO is an external-facing position, not one that focuses only on keeping systems running.

Focusing on communications with the CEO, employees, and customers is absolutely essential to the success of any CTO and the organization for which he or she works.

Communicate with Chad Dickerson, InfoWorld (US)’s CTO, to share your thoughts and opinions. Write him