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September 28, 2023

How to Talk Business: A Short Guide for Tech Leaders

By Ron Forrester ,Paul Gaffney ,Courtney Kissler ,Scott Nasello ,George Kraniotis ,Dave Mangot ,Dhruv Parpia ,Adrienne Shulman

This post is adapted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum paper “Talking Business: Understanding Business Performance So You Can Manage More Than Just the ‘Tech,’ Influence Your Business Partners, Create a Happier Workplace, and Drive Better Outcomes.”

We all want better results. Some technology leaders do this better than others. Their secret, according to reports, is more productive engagement with their business partners. Their path to these results isn’t just better, generic relationships; it is deeper, mutually beneficial relationships anchored in the business’s fundamentals. Tech leaders who are fluent in both the language of business performance and the language of technology deliver the best results and tend to create happier workplaces along the way.

If you are a technology leader at any level in your organization and you want to deliver better business results, you have come to the right place. This paper is a tool kit to help you better understand your business, gain insight into the goals and motivations of your business partners, and translate that understanding and insight into productive partnerships that deliver results. These tools will help you become a participant, not simply a recipient, in key decisions.

An Opening Vignette

As a leader, you have likely witnessed scenes like this one:

Fatima, the Supplements Unlimited CMO, sits in her office with the door open. She’s deep in thought about the CEO’s concerning comments about gross margin during yesterday’s all-hands meeting. Fatima is jolted from her deep thinking when a notification pops up on her laptop: a reminder for her meeting with Andrew, the company’s head of engineering, to discuss the CEO’s concerns.

Andrew knocks on the door and steps into Fatima’s office, sitting down at the chair across from her.

ANDREW: Hi Fatima. Thanks for meeting with me. I heard some frustrations yesterday about the company’s gross margins, and I think our DevOps transformation will be key to solve the gap. We can start with $2 million to build out the new architecture.

FATIMA: Why do . . .

She is interrupted mid-sentence by Andrew; Fatima appears flustered.

ANDREW: I believe the new architecture can help us execute more quickly on initiatives that will improve the company’s performance. Here are three examples of what we can do:
(1) Add additional payment options, like Bitcoin.
(2) Build a self-service GPT-based chatbot to solve common customer questions.
(3) Integrate with a martech platform to increase ad spend and bring in more customers.

FATIMA: I don’t think this will help with our gross margin issues. And don’t forget, we’re a retailer, not a tech company.

Andrew places a sheet of paper on the desk.

ANDREW: Every company is a tech company, though, and here’s the target state architecture that will enable these capabilities.

Andrew suddenly looks down at his phone. He’s being paged to join a production troubleshooting call. It’s the third time this quarter that the company’s recommendation engine has gone down.

ANDREW: My apologies but I need to run. Let me know if you have any questions.

Fatima frowns, breathing in deeply and letting out a deep sigh. She shakes her head in frustration as Andrew turns around to exit her office.

FATIMA: These technology people never seem to understand what our business is about.

This discussion could have been much more productive and less stressful. Let’s explore the tools to make that happen.

1) Improve Engagement and Influence

You have seen examples of healthy engagement between technology leaders and their business partners. Unfortunately, it’s likely you have also seen examples of unhealthy engagement (or lack of engagement), as well as the consequences of this bad or absent engagement.

In examples of healthy engagement, technology teams work on things that create value for the company, and business partners are actively invested in how technology can enable value. There is a spirit of alignment and shared accomplishment. Just as importantly, there is a spirit of shared accountability when things don’t go well. There are celebrations of tangible results delivered (e.g., improvements in cost structure, increases in revenue, etc.) and blameless regrouping if something doesn’t live up to its promise.

Many good things flow from healthy engagement:

  • You will find it easier to establish and perform against goals that are shared between your technology teams and your business partners, and you will have shared accountability for outcomes.
  • Partners will be better equipped to reinforce a shared prioritization, helping to remove roadblocks and prevent distractions.
  • An engaged business partner will provide you and your team with a deeper understanding of the value the tech organization brings to the company.
  • More connectivity with senior business partners will broaden the representation of the technology organization to customers, the board, and investors, amplifying and spreading your message.
  • You will experience a higher signal-to-noise work environment with fewer requests for “new tech” and a meaningful reduction in shiny-object syndrome.

Unfortunately, there are cases of lack of engagement (or unhealthy engagement). In these cases, disconnects exist in how various parties assess success (tech focused on delivering some piece of tech, business partners focused on deadlines and cost estimates). Further, there are wild differences in the definition of success (i.e., celebrations of project completion versus results actually delivered) and finger-pointing and blame when things don’t work out.

You may find yourself blessed with one or more business partners who have found their path to healthy engagement with the technology team. If you are not that lucky, you can and should work to help your organization reach that level of engagement. This work starts by equipping yourself and your team with new tools:

  • Learn how your business partners think about and discuss the company’s performance.
  • Learn the language of business and how that language comes alive in numbers.
  • Discover what other factors specifically motivate and animate your set of business partners.
  • Apply that language and interpersonal understanding to change the way you lead and, by changing the way you lead, inspire your business partners to be your partner.

2) The Language of Business

All businesses speak a common core language of performance: the language of accounting and financial statements. Because it’s universal, speaking the language of business is a high-leverage way for technology leaders to become effective with only a small amount of effort. In particular, the parts that a tech leader must understand are straightforward and will be helpful to you in understanding business performance in other contexts (e.g., to evaluate personal investments).

The effects of everything we and our business partners do flow to the financial statements. Technology can and should play a key role in enabling the company to achieve financial goals. After all, this is the purpose of our businesses. If technology efforts have made the company better, the financial statements will show a tangible improvement in the economic health of the firm.

In addition to the language of accounting and financial statements, tech leaders should be fluent in a handful of other domains. All companies participate in markets, sometimes as a supplier and sometimes as a buyer. As their core economic engine, companies generally are a supplier in one specific market and engage with buyers in that market. Microeconomics is the language describing the behavior of participants in these markets.

Companies thrive by capturing new market share, expanding into new geographies, becoming more profitable in certain operations, etc. Business strategy is the language of making these changes in direction.

Finally, in attempting to execute a strategy to deal with economic conditions in the hope of improving outcomes (as reflected on the scorecard that is the set of core financial statements), businesses have to pay for their initiatives and their operations. Corporate finance is the language of how these things are financed.

(For a deeper dive into each of these languages, check out the full paper here.)

3) Relate to Your Business Partners

Your business partners likely think about business performance differently than you do. For example, your chief marketing officer might care about customer acquisition costs, customer churn, or revenue growth in existing customers. Your CEO/CFO might care about a different set of key performance indicators, such as EBITDA, revenue growth, or operating margin.

Your business partners work within a system, and to effectively relate with them, you need to understand this system. In the previous, you learned how to speak their language.

Effectively collaborating with business partners requires seeing each partner as an individual with specific values, beliefs, incentives, and behaviors. Personal incentives are a complex map of company goals, bonus structures, loyalty to others, and other intangible factors. Given the importance of these relationships, leaders who are adept at relating to business partners will put in the work to understand the organization, objectives, and people.

4) Operate More Effectively

Becoming a more effective technology leader requires engaging with peers from other departments as well as speaking the language of business performance and financial literacy.

A mental model to consider is your three spans of influence. Your first span of influence is what you have most direct control over and are the people reporting to you. Whether you have a team of five or a department of thousands, there are actions you can take within your direct span of control to operate more effectively. The second span of influence includes your peers and business partners who do not work within technology but whom you rely on for collaboration and other business needs. The third span of influence is one very few people consider and yet is the most important to start with. It’s you and the actions you can take to become a more effective leader without relying on anyone else.

(To dive deeper into how to operate more effectively, download the full paper here.)

Revisiting Andrew and Fatima

Let’s take a look at how our opening skit could be dramatically better with a technology leader applying the advice in this paper:

Andrew knocks on the door and steps into Fatima’s office, sitting down at the chair across from her.

ANDREW: Hi Fatima. Thanks for meeting with me again. Last month, we discussed how we might be able to change the product mix. Coincidentally, the CEO mentioned the company seeing a sequential decline in gross margin. I’d love to hear about what you’re thinking about to help address the problem.

FATIMA: My team has been tossing around a few ideas. The one at the top of the list is to hire an additional marketer to create new campaigns geared toward our more expensive products. We’re hopeful that this will help turn things around in the coming quarter.

ANDREW: Thanks for sharing. Would you be open to seeing some of the things that the team has been working on? We have a hypothesis that the recommendation engine can be improved in two ways.

FATIMA: Sure! Tell me more about what the team’s thinking.

ANDREW: Two things. First, as you know we’ve had some reliability issues with the recommendation engine. The team uncovered improvements to address the issues. As they’ve been working on the fix, they proposed making a quick change to the recommendation logic to promote our more premium products. The fix is going in tomorrow night but we have a separate branch for the recommendation change that we can demo. How about I set up time with you this week to check it out?

FATIMA: That sounds awesome! I’ll hold off on posting the job until we meet. Thanks for coming to the table with the idea.

We all want better results. Technology leaders who master the topics in this paper deliver better results because they are fluent in both the language of business performance and the language of technology. While each business is different, the underlying language is the same and will serve you well in many situations. Each business is different, however, and you will need to apply technology that is most relevant to your business situation. The tools in this paper help you assess that situation and put your technology work in the context of how your company becomes more valuable. The best technology leaders make their companies more valuable and those leaders are regularly invited to have a seat at the table.

Read the full paper in the Fall 2023 DevOps Enterprise Journal.

- About The Authors
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Ron Forrester

Chief Technology Officer at Blue Nile

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Courtney Kissler

SVP, Customer and Retail Technology, Starbucks

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Scott Nasello

Engineering Leader

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