Compliance Depends on Executive Support – Speak the “C” Language to Executives

By Larry Shoup

Compliance should be at the top of any executive’s priority list for IT Asset Management. As the individuals responsible for the finances and the organization’s reputation, compliance is a natural fit with achieving executive goals. So why do ITAM professionals continue to struggle for executive buy-in for compliance projects? The problem is communicating the issues and value propositions in “C” level language. IT Asset Managers forget that the executive level does not have the same frame of reference and is not in sync with the daily mechanics of IT Asset Management. If the message that we are trying to communicate is structured around process problems, poor audit preparation or lack of cooperation, then we are unlikely to achieve buy-in. When we think “how could they not approve this project?” the problem is usually context, not content.

Language Barriers

As IT Asset Managers, we are often caught in the false thinking that if something makes sense from an ITAM program standpoint, that it should be approved fairly easily. The problem with this line of thinking is that ITAM professionals and “C” level executives speak two distinctly different languages. IT Asset Managers focus on the work that is going to be accomplished, while “C” level executives focus on the value to the organization and prioritizing this opportunity with all the other good opportunities waiting for approval. For this reason, any ITAM presentations for the “C” level should be constructed in a manner that is conducive to their language and communication style. Communicating in this manner will achieve a much higher executive buy-in success rate which ultimately leads to a more successful ITAM program.

A very important factor in this communication process is that the communicator is not always the IT Asset Manager making the presentation. The presenter is likely to be a middle manager who is unlikely to bridge the gap between your ITAM focused presentation and the executive perspective. The presentation has even less chance of success in this scenario because the IT Asset Manager isn’t there to bring deep understanding and passion to overcome the language mistake. The best choice is for the IT Asset Manager to take steps to understand who the executives are, what their issues are, and how your project satisfies their goals. Do not fall victim to the assumption that just because it makes sense to you, it will automatically make sense to everyone else. Instead, put your presentation in the context of the executives.

Developing Context

Context is framing the communication in the terms of the executives’ issues and goals. In this case, the framing is not restricted to the structure of the presentation or the communication media chosen such as PowerPoint, documents, charts or graphs. This contextual framing takes on the work of bridging the language gap and not leaving it up to the executives or that middle manager to be able to translate the proposal.

The recent economic downturn provides a good example of executive language and context. During the downturn, executives were speaking the language of “survival” as organizations went bankrupt or were absorbed by more stable organizations. Regardless of what message was being conveyed, if the information was not presented as a means to cut costs and generate cash, the “C” level executives gave the project little attention and even less priority. Conversely, now that the economy is on the rise and organizations are becoming more confident in seeking out new business ventures, executives are now speaking the language of “growth.” It is these types of issues as well as the transitions to new priorities that need to be understood when presenting your cause to the executive table.

For compliance communication, the obvious message tactic for any executive is the financial burden associated with executing an audit, plus the additional fines, penalties and software costs accrued needlessly. However, relying on the expected context is not sufficient. It is important to get to know your audience, their roles as well as their concerns of the moment or of the year, depending on the far-sightedness of your executives. As a first step, consider the following information about executive roles that is consistent across organizations:

CEO/COO: The CEO/COO has a major impact on the organization in its entirety, including all aspects of the ITAM program. This “C” level executive sets the mission and goals for the organization and decides which major initiatives to invest in. The CEO/COO communicates with shareholders, board of directors and industry analysts as well as employees. Profit margins, cash savings, future opportunities, revenue and external relations are the core language of this role. If you are presenting to the CEO/COO, consider this viewpoint as your starting position on the correct context.

CFO: The CFO is the gatekeeper of the capital that the organization spends on future projects and current operations. When presenting to the CFO, it is important to remember the universal language of finance that he or she speaks. By structuring the presentation in a manner that emphasizes focus on the ROI and TCO of a project, the relevance and value of the message is easier for this role to evaluate.

CIO: The CIO is one of the few “C” level executives that understand what is being presented from an operational standpoint. Value, function, purpose, and risk mitigation are all meaningful parts of the CIO’s language. However, that does not mean that your current presentation is good enough for the CIO. Consider taking the next step and structuring the presentation so that the operational view is mapped to specific IT goals. In many cases this step increases his/her willingness to be a stakeholder in compliance projects.

Among these “C” level executives, there are differences in how to best communicate, although it is not impossible to select common threads or present to all three without exceeding the time window that you have been given. Preparing more information than you present is another good preparation habit so that you are ready to answer questions. If you have adapted your presentation correctly, the amount of message comprehension and follow-on discussion should increase, with an increase in the approvals to follow.

In addition to understanding the nature of the “C” roles, there are organization-specific elements to consider such as what decision-making mode the “C” level executive is in, the current atmosphere of the organization, and how to best communicate with the executive. Your immersion in the day to day challenges of ITAM make this step a necessity for busy, dedicated IT Asset Managers, particularly when under audit or review pressure.

Identifying the Decision-Maker

Without any guidance, how do you select the “C” level executive to whom you should present? Identifying the decision-maker is a vital step. This person is your focus and is the one who can give the buy-in that you seek. By framing your communication for that decision-maker, the time between presentation and decision shortens, which can take the highly competitive tactic of doing nothing off the table. Executives are expected to make decisions quickly and by associating your project with the decision-maker’s goals and needs, you have done your best to gain buy-in for compliance.

How the decision-maker is identified within your organization is dependent on the environment in which you operate. However, there are some common behaviors that are possible for all three of the identified “C” level executives. These behaviors identify the functions and actions of a decision-maker. It is possible to have more than one individual perform these functions. In those instances, identify who performs the function more often or has more control over the actions that directly pertain to the ITAM program. A decision-maker is a “C” level executive who:

Invests capital: The decision-maker within your organization is the one who actually allocates the organization’s capital to the budgets of each department. They control the movement of investment dollars and the direction that the money takes in regards to goals and initiatives.

Increases value to the owners of the organization: A successful decision-maker has the board of directors, shareholders and external perspective in mind when deciding to invest in a venture. That is a prominent trait of an executive decision-maker and it does not imply that that CEO is always the executive to persuade as power structures may differ from expected. Seek out the “C” level executive who evaluates actions as if they were addressing the board or shareholders or at the “helm of the ship.” The person with this perspective is going to have a say on which direction investments move.

Prioritizes initiatives, funding, and opportunities: The decision-maker prioritizes what ventures and ideas to pursue which is a much more difficult task than it seems. Many people within the organization bring ideas to the “C” level executives, all wanting approval. The executives must determine which are the most beneficial to the organization as a whole. THIS IS THE #1 MIS-STEP OF IT ASSET MANAGERS! Not only do you have to make a solid presentation with realistic facts and figures, but you also need to prove why your proposal is better than all other investment opportunities. This differentiation is why speaking the language of ROI and TCO is so important to executives. It provides a universal metric to measure initiatives and to assist in choosing the ones with the most value to the overall organization. Clues to this executive can be found in articles and speeches given by the executive to the employees and to the media.

Anticipates the future: A decision-maker is a strategic thinker, with ideas on what direction to take the organization, how quickly, and in what order. Anticipating the future of the organization is one of the primary duties a “C” level executive so it is always appropriate to prepare ideas on how your initiatives help take the organization forward into a brighter future. These ideas attract the decision-maker at the table who is also likely to be flexible and willing to take advantage of an opportunity.

These qualities are almost universal in decision-makers. Find and identify which individual or individuals in the organization possess these qualities and target your research and presentation to that perspective. The tailoring of the message is appropriate and appreciated as long as the presentation is truthful.

The ultimate goal when presenting to the “C” level is to gain investment. Investment is the only true metric for measuring buy-in. The other forms of investment from executives is usually in the form of something intangible and immeasurable, such as prioritization of ITAM goals and directed cooperation from various business units. Regardless, investment is the goal for any business presentation brought to the “C” level. Without that investment, ITAM initiatives are much more difficult to achieve and to sustain over time.

To enhance presentations and initiatives going forward, the old concept of learning from your mistakes applies. After making a solid presentation to the desk of a “C” level executive, the answer to your initiative may still be “no.” Do not be afraid to ask why. The crucial question of “why” the proposal was rejected helps to highlight possible communication differences in the way the presentation was presented, and the way the executive interpreted the information. What objectives are driving the executives at that point in time is also a factor that may be exposed by a post-decision discussion.

It is also important to interpret the communication coming from the “C” level executives back to your research and preparation, if not the selection of initiative. Since this article has focused on compliance, it is difficult to imagine that the selection was a mistake since the financial aspects and risk factors are strong and easily proved. Another look at the research and the presentation is definitely required. For instance, if an executive does not agree that the financial incentive is not there, that would indicate that there was not enough ROI and TCO calculations built into the presentation. Also, if executives are unsure about moving forward with the idea, they may provide you with an answer that is not definitive. This answer is known as a “polite no.” With the steps taken to bridge the communication gap, a “no is better than a maybe, but a yes is the goal.”

About the Author

Larry Shoup is with Silver Tree Solutions, Inc.