I find it hard to imagine any business leader worth any salt can lead a company absent of an appreciation of technology, no less an understanding of it. While such a leader needn’t become a data scientist, or even a tech geek, this leader most certainly needs to know how to speak our language. Unfortunately, in many companies, this just doesn’t happen, ever. To paraphrase veteran Marc Andreessen, we’re in the midst of a major technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy. Yet, too many CEOs still treat technology as an afterthought.
The idea that a 21st century company chief doesn’t comprehend technology seems implausible at best, and shortsighted at worst. But every day I meet these leaders. They’ve relegated their tech strategy and procedures to “I.T.,” where they say “it belongs.” No. Technology as an “afterthought” means operations as an afterthought. It means corporate well-being, agility and profit as an afterthought. It’s worse than shortsighted. It’s just downright stupid. CEOs need to know this stuff.
But how much do they need to know, and how deeply do they need to know it? Just as it’s not reasonable for every company to run out and hire an analytics savant to occupy the C-suite, I’m not suggesting that the CEO spend 12 hours a day with the servers. Nor should would-be head honchos bypass the fast MBA track for a handful of crash courses in software engineering.
Do you think it unreasonable, however, to expect existing or prospective CEOs to spend time learning about the very technology that allows their company to function, and perhaps more importantly, to pivot? Sad to say, as long as it doesn’t raise red budget flags, IT escapes capture like a plaguey rat.
CEOs, by and large, have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards IT. They distance themselves from technology largely because they don’t have any interest in understanding it or the idea of comprehending it seems too overwhelming. Indeed, those who feel like they should know more about the tech side would probably rather lie down until the feeling goes away. The business side doesn’t speak the language of IT, and therefore doesn’t grasp its nuances.
Perhaps more alarmingly, when it comes to security, estimates are that malware infects anywhere from 18 to 30 percent of computers. From 2011-12, data breaches increased 44 percent. More recently, in the first quarter of 2014, custodians of vital private records lost more than 200 million records in connection with at least 254 known major digital breaches, representing a 233 percent increase from the same time period in 2013. As a real time example, Verizon’s most recent annual data breach report confirmed more than 2,100 breaches and about 80,000 reported security incidents. If those numbers don’t grab you by the collar, try this one on for size: the estimated financial loss resulting from those breaches totaled $400 million. I could go on and on. And of course, I’m not even touching on the thousands of breaches that are never publically disclosed. A CEO who doesn’t understand what the IT guys do can’t advise them properly.
However, all is not lost. What most CEOs need is a master communicator, a tech translator to bridge the gap between the business suite and the tech back offices. They need some person equally fluent in the language of high tech and business who can help identify and fix these damaging shortcomings. Here’s the best news: The person could be you. It should be you, provided you know the right steps to take.
From my perspective, CEOs can take action, and become more tech savvy in three ways:
1. Learn the language. Become conversant, competent or at least knowledgeable about the basics of the technologies underlying your operations. If you have to hire someone who can do this translating for you, do so, but only so they can train you. IT isn’t somebody else’s job; it’s yours, ultimately, finally, because it’s your show. You know enough about finance to talk to those guys, don’t you? You know enough about marketing and sales that you could smell incompetence, couldn’t you? So why not bolster your tech aptitude in the same way?
You have to know what’s going on in the corporate ecosystem. It’s a system, after all. You can’t separate the parts from the whole. As a business leader, having a leg up on technology makes you more agile. You know your capabilities and, equally, you understand your limitations. You can steer your business much better if you understand the technology underpinning it in the first place.
2. Be accountable. After a tech failure or data breach in your company, do you start pointing fingers downhill? Why? When I take a company through an exercise to improve process and procedure, I make the CEO sit in the back of the room. It’s an eye-opening experience for many. For the first time, they can see where their corporate ecosystem is damaged. In what world is $400 million – in a single company – an acceptable loss? How can we sit by idly and watch hundreds of millions of records lost to largely preventable digital breaches?
Sure, CEOs get the summary versions of what’s going on from their department heads, and executive staffs, etc. But as a CEO, you have to know how the machine works.
3. Communicate regularly. Remember when you were a kid and your mother told you to take out the trash? You likely replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to it,” knowing full well it probably wasn’t going to get done, at least not by you. This same scenario goes on every day in business. As the CEO, you can’t just pay lip service to the CIO and the rest of the tech team. Technology is the underpinning of your business, the thing that connects all parts of your corporate ecosystem. Tech should be provided, and more importantly sought, as often as financial statements and marketing plans. Think of this as a system of corporate checks and balances.
If the tech team builds or implements something, you need to understand its value to your enterprise. In fixing or improving one part your ecosystem are you inadvertently damaging another? Every segment of your enterprise ecosystem is connected. New technology needs to be explored before it’s implemented. Prior to embarking on a new path see how it affects every aspect of your business. The IT team can’t do this. You have to, for the sake of your business and your sanity.
An enterprise will never function optimally, and even the latest and greatest technology will never be fully realized, until its CEO acknowledges that IT really does matter, and he or she needs to know what is going on. Along with the increased opportunities for using IT to achieve strategic advantage, increase efficiency and improve the bottom line, it’s critical that all C-suite occupants reexamine what they need to know, as well as what they don’t know, about technology.
Lloyd Marino, CEO of Avetta, is a “Tech Whisperer,” a true master at translating and communicating byzantine technical processes that elude even the savviest business minds into language they can grasp. Mr. Marino’s clientele include the heaviest hitters in the interconnected worlds of business, finance, technology, government, NGO and the military. He has a quarter century of experience working in senior management roles including as CTO and CIO for various organizations from emerging growth startups to Fortune 500 companies.