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How to Communicate IT Concepts to Non-IT Minded People: Part Two – Senior Leadership and Executives


May 16, 2016

5 minute read

it talk to non it ftr 2

Part Two of our communication series focuses on how to “speak C-suite.” If you haven’t read Part One – Getting Started, read it here

If you work in IT and need to get funding for a new system or resources for a new process, you’ll need to get buy-in from upper-level management. But how do you successfully convince C-level executives and senior leadership to adopt and invest in a new idea, especially if they’re not tech-savvy? How do you secure that buy-in and show them the value of your idea?

We spoke to two experts to learn a few communication tips specifically tailored toward senior leadership. By knowing how to frame your approach and highlight the right details, IT professionals can get the approvals they need to make important technological changes.

Meet the Experts

Jonathan Feldman
Jonathan Feldman
Jonathan Feldman is the CIO of Asheville, North Carolina. He is also an award-winning writer, a global public speaker, and a columnist for InformationWeek. You can read his blog here and his InformationWeek articles here.
Miguel Jacq
Miguel Jacq runs mig5, a sysadmin consultancy based in Melbourne, Australia. He blends the art of communication and systems administration for agencies and other sysadmin teams around the world, helping to improve and evolve their IT systems, workflows, and customer solutions.

Get Their Attention

To help convince senior leadership to get on board, Miguel Jacq recommends including a few “attention-grabbers” that are especially effective. Jacq, who runs a sysadmin consultancy, says these are a few convincing points of persuasion you can highlight in your pitch:

  • Less duplication of effort (i.e., more automation). “Something with a higher price tag upfront might actually save the business money in more lateral ways later,” says Jacq.
  • Long term pay-off (i.e., “We won’t have to do this all again six months down the road”). A solution with a long-term pay-off eases the transition to future options, and it also means there’s less technical debt to maintain.
  • Additional security. “What’s your company’s threat model, and how does that impact on software or design choices? What are the ‘wins’ from a security perspective? Did a competitor get it wrong? If so, highlight why your approach is better,” says Jacq.
  • Solution as an industry standard. “This can offer reassurance and validation of a safe or sensible choice,” says Jacq. It also comes back to the idea of less duplication of effort. “You may have to fight ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome, which can be a perceived ‘pride’ point by management, but is usually the wrong choice for reasons above,” he says.

To learn six simple, effective analogies for explaining IT concepts to anyone, download our free guide here. 

Appeal to their Expertise and Desires

Don’t underestimate them even though they might not be techies, or techies anymore,” says Jacq. “Upper-level management types tend to have a good understanding of risk versus reward—sometimes even better than the techies do. That is, they inherently grok how trade-offs can sometimes be necessary, and making that call is a risk that is management’s to make,” he says.

They can also be cost-focused, which means they can actually share an IT engineer’s desire to automate away a painful task, or reduce the need to have to re-do it at all,” says Jacq.

Know What “Radio Station” They Listen To

“There’s one radio station they listen to and that’s WIIFM. You know, ‘What’s In It For Me’?” jokes Jonathan Feldman, CIO of Asheville, North Carolina.

It’s not that crass or simplistic, he says, but you do need to build a project or initiative that’s mission-focused. However, it’s common to face some skepticism about the business benefits of a proposed project, especially if you’re in consulting or external IT.

“It’s actually a much higher mountain to climb because everyone’s kind of rolling their eyes thinking, ‘Yeah, business benefit for us. You’re going to work for us for a couple months, and then you’re gone. You got no skin in the game. You’re not in the boat,’” he says.  

When you’re in internal IT, there are negatives about that, but the big positive is: You’re all in the same boat. The rising waters raise all boats,” Feldman says.

“It’s a lot easier to put together a win-win type of scenario,” he advises.  

Keep It Short and Sweet

“If you have Mr. Project Manager who decides that a 10-page memo is necessary so that he can show off his ability to write long form, I guarantee you that’s not getting read by anybody at the C-level. Never,” says Feldman. “They’re going to be dismissive of that person and say, ‘He just can’t get to the point.’”

If you’re presenting a new project to C-level executives for review, most importantly: Be very succinct. Don’t ramble. Make sure that you have a one-page executive summary that includes everything they need to know.

Play the Long Game: Continually Build a Currency of Credibility and Trust

Feldman recommends continuously building credibility with C-level execs, which goes a long way. For example, he relayed a story where, a few years ago, he passed on the latest technology available, since it didn’t benefit anybody and there was no clear use case for it. He says that decision immediately sent the message to his CEO and CFO that IT was no longer in the business of buying new toys just for the sake of it.

“It’s a lot easier [to get buy-in] when you show the chief executives that you have the mission of the business—or government, or non-profit—at the core of what you’re doing. If that’s your compass, everything else will be fine. Then they’ll trust you when you say, ‘I need X.’ They’re going to say, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I really trust you,’” he says.

It gives you tremendous coin of credibility, and that coin of credibility is something that you spend when you want to take risks,” says Feldman.

He points out that this isn’t just a “one-and-done”-type deal, however. Like going to the gym, you’ll only see the effects if you consistently keep it up. 

Have Patience

With this kind of process, patience is a virtue.

“As a technology expert, you can be ahead of the curve. Be patient; prepare more inevitable use cases for the next budget. Use the ‘broken record’ technique. Eventually management will catch up with you—if they don’t, then their competitors will,” says Jacq.

For more information on effective communication, read the final part of our communication series here: Part Three – Best Practices. Read Part One – Getting Started here, and learn six simple, everyday analogies to explain IT concepts (that everyone will understand!) by downloading our free guide here.