Accelerated digital adoption brings a new role for tech leaders

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The last 18 months have been an incredible journey for technology leaders and their teams. In this time, we’ve witnessed ‘one of the biggest surges in technology investment in history’ whereby the world’s IT leaders spent more than their annual budget rise in the space of three months. In turn, technology leaders demonstrated significant value as they worked to accommodate unprecedented levels of new technology adoption across almost every industry and geography.

About the author

Mark Rees is Chief Technology Officer at Xero.

But while we may have helped our leaders and organizations through the worst of a global pandemic, it is what follows that needs our attention. That is, delivering on the promise of the new tools, programs, platforms and ways of working that we have invested in -- and breaking down a lot of new jargon at all levels of the organization. The changes stemming from record investment in, and adoption of, new technology, won’t necessarily be understood or accepted by all as quickly as they came into force. In other words, just because the technology is in place, doesn’t mean everyone is on board with it. There is now a significant opportunity for IT leaders to pave the way so all levels of the organization can reap the long-term benefits from the investments made in new technology - and it all comes down to effective communication.

I’m a technologist, not a communicator

If we cast our minds back to the peak of the pandemic, CEOs and boards were swiftly making critical decisions that had widespread implications for the organization, its customers and many other stakeholders; and they trusted the advice and support of technology leaders every step of the way. On any given day, our role involved justifying large-scale investments in new technology, playing a leading role in educating and convincing senior decision makers of the benefits in such investments and managing the associated changes that would stem from implementation. The stakes were high wherever we looked but tech teams and their leaders stepped up (and into action) faster than we ever had before. This will have a lasting impact on the future role and influence of technology leaders in the enterprise. In fact, almost two thirds (62 percent) of technology leaders already note a permanent increase in their influence as a result of the work they’ve done during the pandemic.

As technology leaders, we’re more than just the custodians of technical knowledge in our organization; we also need to be skilled communicators. If our experience of the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the power in our ability to listen, persuade and justify. Regardless of the situation we face; whether it’s an outage, a breach or a global pandemic, we must always have a strong understanding of who we’re speaking to, be human in our approach and consider our words carefully. So whether you’re dealing with a skeptical member of the board or an entry-level employee with limited technical knowledge - here are my tips for communicating effectively.

Lead with empathy

Effective communication requires two-way dialogue and one of the best ways to establish this is by listening. This applies not just in the traditional sense of the word but also through your preparation; investing your time and energy in understanding a person’s point of view before entering the conversation. When preparing for a difficult conversation, always allow enough time to explain what you need to and do your best to address any questions or concerns in the moment.

By showing empathy, you’re better able to understand what your colleague or peer is hearing and how they’re interpreting your words. Over time, this will help you develop trust, new relationships and establish yourself as an invaluable resource.

Explain what’s in it for them

When making any decision, we’re all driven by the same question; what’s in it for me? This is a simple but effective measure to apply to any conversation where you’re looking to persuade or influence another party - particularly those with limited technical knowledge, competing interests or any other barrier to accepting change and gaining understanding. In order to grasp what’s in it for the other party, you must spend time to gain a clear understanding of their responsibilities, past experiences with technology or any factors that may impact their understanding - just as you would if you were seeking to help an elderly family member with a new tool or process. Consider the hierarchy of needs we all seek to meet and identify the top benefits and value for the person you’re speaking to. How will it make their job easier? How much time and money will they save? Will it help them demonstrate leadership or mend relationships?

Theory of mind tells us we never really know what another is thinking but you can achieve a great deal by making a conscious effort to consider the factors influencing another person’s world and how your new technology or system may impact them.

Choose your words wisely

As technology leaders, words should be considered as one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. In fact, the way we choose to phrase something can often be the difference between success and failure when it comes to securing buy-in from a senior executive or convincing a whole department to change their way of working.

In his book The Power of Words, Rev J. Martin famously tells us “words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.” The tech industry can learn a lot from this as we often find ourselves in situations that require us to communicate unpopular or complex information; at which point many of us are guilty of using industry jargon instead of rephrasing an explanation in layman's terms.

When explaining tech to others, assume technical concepts and jargon are inaccessible to them. Using overly complex language immediately creates confusion and builds further barriers to understanding. Instead, choose your words wisely and take the time to step back from the details to distill the key impact or outcome you need to communicate. Once you’ve done that, it’s much easier to find the right words for the discussion you need to have.

Use examples and metaphors

When learning something new it’s often helpful to take a step back from the literal words and definitions of unfamiliar subject matter and allow our imaginations to connect the dots based on what we already understand about the world around us. This is why the use of examples and metaphors are particularly effective. For example, when explaining database architecture, I often use the metaphor of a kitchen cupboard containing jars and beans. Kitchen cupboards are designed to help you store and organize disparate items needed for a functional kitchen. Within them, there are separate containers or jars -- the contents of which contain multiple smaller items of the same or similar kind. The reason we use these storage facilities this way is for ease of access, tidiness, and efficiency. We know where to go to find what we need, and this improves the functionality of our kitchen overall.

While the role and value of technology in enabling progress, connection and innovation really came to the fore during the pandemic, we know any change of this magnitude doesn’t ‘just happen’. A lot goes on behind the scenes to not only keep things running, but also improve and innovate along the way, and without effective communication, this wouldn’t be possible. As we look ahead at ways to maximize budgets and demonstrate the value of future investments in new technologies post-pandemic, there’s a lot we can learn from what we’ve achieved in the last 18 months through effective communication.

To enable easier communication online, see our best online collaboration tools.

Mark Rees is Chief Technology Officer at Xero.