C-Suite Special Series Part 3:

Essential communication skills for CEOs

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


IT staff have an impossible task – to provide the entire enterprise with perfect tools for the collection, storage and usage of data, which must always be perfect because they will then feed perfect reports on which perfect business decisions can be made.

One imperfection in the report figures and the IT department gets the blame.

But it’s not usually their fault. And almost never their fault entirely.

Greater fault often lies with business staff who don’t have sufficient knowledge, or don’t have the skills and tools, to communicate effectively with IT staff.

But the imperfect report isn’t really their fault either.

Essential communication skills for CEOs

The broader operational culture of your business is likely to be the real culprit. Specifically, how business staff approach and build their IT-based projects. And even more specifically, how the teams involved communicate with each other about the needs of the project.

In fact, it’s in the communication assumptions of your business staff around your data and information that can make or break the biggest IT project investments your company is making.

As we’ve discussed in previous parts of this C-Suite Special Series of blogs, here and here, company culture starts at the top of an organisation and filters down.

So if you, as a senior manager, approach communication, with unquestioned assumptions and you’re quick to blame IT (when something goes wrong), you’re already setting everybody up for failure in future IT projects across the organisation.

The Secret to Successful Communication is Shared Language

We have a saying we often use to begin our education classes:

What you think I said is not what I think you heard.

As senior level managers, successful communication is vital to ensuring that staff do what you ask and the business moves in the direction you intend.

The problem comes when you think you’ve communicated successfully, and the listeners think that too, but neither side realise misunderstandings have taken place.

How can we ensure this doesn’t happen?

The nature of communication is to assume that if someone indicates they understand what you’ve said, then they have. But that can be a very costly assumption.

In our experience as business consultants, we’ve learned that most miscommunication arises in the assumptions made around the use of the most common business terms used in an organisation.

These are terms referring to your core business functions. For instance, in an insurance company, these would be terms such as

  • customer,
  • policy,
  • cover,
  • premium,
  • risk etc. ,

as well as your key reporting metrics

  • renewal rate,
  • policy retention, etc.

For each term, a very clear, quality managed, and structured definition is required, with the calculation details specified, so that when someone asks “what’s this quarter’s customer retention figures?” those that create the report, and everyone who looks at the report, truly understands what they’re actually looking at.

Believe me, we’ve sat around many meeting room tables watching staff from different divisions spend long amounts of time debating the ‘true’ definition and calculation of core business terms & metrics within massive, international companies.

These are core business functions and their definitions should be clear – and it’s essential for the leadership of these businesses to be clear on the official definition of the key metrics of their organisation. It’s fundamental for business decision making.

But, these definitions are rarely even discussed.

And here’s the real problem for you, as a senior leader in your organisation.

You won’t know if a team member understands a term you’ve used differently to you.

So when you ask for reports on certain figures or metrics, do you know for sure that what you’re getting is what you asked for?

And if you’re basing big business decisions on those reports and figures, you’ll want no room for doubt.

Here’s another example

You may have heard us talk about this before, but it’s worth repeating.

We were involved with a team hired to figure out why the CFO of an international telco couldn’t get a single or consistent answer to his request for “the number of basic telephone services we have”.

This is a very basic metric for a telco and should be a straightforward figure to calculate because of its importance to the primary function of the company.

When this CFO asked for this figure, he would get seven, vastly different numbers from his seven different divisions. Needless to say, he was frustrated and worried about this glaring inconsistency that had no explanation.

Furthermore, by the time we were hired to help fix this issue, the CFO had already invested millions of dollars, over many years, trying to get the CIO to fix the problem. Yet still there was no single, clear answer to this core metric request.

Our team finally solved the problem and, no surprise to us, it turned out to be definitional.

By getting to an understanding of what was really meant by “basic telephone service” across the seven areas of the business, the cause of the problem was obvious and the solution was straightforward.

Once a clear and high quality definition was written for the business term “basic telephone service, the remaining problems lay simply in unpacking database extractions & calculations that weren’t following the official definition.

If this company had seen the real value of clear language, and invested in solid, enterprise-wide definitions early on, they would have never had this problem – and countless other smaller ones!

And the extent to which such a problem has cost this company money, customers, growth potential and potential legal and regulatory risk could have been massive.

You may ask “Why is this my problem? I just tell my direct reports to sort it out!”

If you’re at C-Suite management level, you’re right. You could just get angry, and tell other people to sort it out, which they may or may not be able to do and you may or may not ever know that they’ve done it effectively. In our telco example, the CFO had tried this, along with huge financial investment, to no avail.

In our lexicon, that’s very, very poor management style.

Given the gravitas of the business decisions you have to make, it should be of primary concern to you that you know, for sure, your requests for information are understood, and that you understand the figures & metrics you’re using to make your decisions.

If you’re not active in helping your direct reports get this language issue clarified and established, across your entire organisation, you’ll never have that assurance.

We call that true business assurance.

The Bottom Line when Implementing Change

And here’s a frustratingly simple truth we’ve learned about implementing changes like language use in organisations, over the years we’ve been helping companies do it:

Change only spreads as far as
the staff reporting to
those tasked to make it happen.

This means one very clear thing for enterprise wide change in language use:

To successfully change language usage across the entire organisation it needs to be an edict that comes from the very top.

You need to be leading by example and demanding excellence in your own, and your team’s, use and approach to the language of your business.

That starts with a glossary.

Creating a quality glossary isn’t straight forward, but we’ve written about how to do it well in a previous blog. [Read it here].

A successful glossary has high quality, structured definitions and a strong, active management and governance process around it.

It takes time, effort and healthy resourcing to make it work.

That’s what it takes to create business assurance.

If you want the business assurance, you must take responsibility to lead the change and invest as required.

Other C-Suite Special Series Blogs

C-Suite Special Series Part 1: What does being a great business leader really mean? (read it here)

C-Suite Special Series Part 2: Why your struggles are your greatest strength (read it here)

C-Suite Special Series Part 4: Management and Governance – get clear on the difference (read it here)

Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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