The elevator speech

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a column on the dreaded elevator encounter. It discussed the terror many rank-and-file employees feel at the thought of sharing a 30-second ride with the CEO for fear they'll commit some career-ending faux pas.

          A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a column on the dreaded elevator encounter. It discussed the terror many rank-and-file employees feel at the thought of sharing a 30-second ride with the CEO or some other top executive for fear they'll commit some career-ending faux pas.

          But why not see the chance encounter as a great opportunity to let them know just what technology has done for them lately? Why not make sure everyone in IT is ready to grab the opportunity when those doors slide open?

          "I think the challenge here is not the elevator speech, but what comes before it," says Mark Endry, senior vice president and CIO at JD Edwards in Denver. Your company should have clear goals and objectives; IT should be aligned with them, and each IT employee should know how his own work is helping to attain them, he says. Endry's managers coach IT workers on this linkage at every opportunity, from performance reviews to events where they play "The Weakest Link" using questions about IT and company goals.

          Speak business value

          Good metrics can help you pinpoint how you're adding value to the business in ways management can easily grasp, says John Boushy, senior vice president for operations, products and services, and IT at Harrah's Entertainment in Las Vegas. For example, a helpdesk person who tells the CEO that his job is to solve internal customers' technical problems won't have the same impact as the one who states that his group has cut response time by 30% in the past year and is now closing half of its calls on the spot.

          Once you understand your business value, get psyched about the opportunity to demonstrate it. "People have to want to be ready," says Dennis Klinger, vice president of IT at Florida Power & Light in Juno Beach, Florida. "They have to realise that this is a good thing to do and agree that if they get the opportunity to do it, they will." A good elevator speech is great public relations for your career as well as for IT, he says.

          As for the speech itself, a manager can help with the framework, but each message delivered spontaneously will of course be different. Think about what you do that is most important to the business in terms of raising revenue and cutting costs, Boushy says. "Look at profit, growth and customer loyalty, and try to isolate the things you are doing that would make an impact on those," says Klinger. "Those areas get right to the chairman's heart."

          Choose to talk about projects that include lots of non-IT people, says Virginia Robbins, director of IT at Chela Financial in San Francisco. Select an action verb that truly reflects your role. If you're excited about the project, say so. And it's OK to acknowledge that you don't know all the details. Neither does the CEO.

          "Stay truthful, and articulate your actual contribution," Robbins says. "And remember: No acronyms!"

          Robbins gives an example of how even a low-level IT worker can make an impression on a senior executive: "I'm learning tape-labelling for the customer retention project. I don't know all the details, but from what I understand, this will help retain customers by reducing the time spent responding to their requests. My part is to make sure that the tapes storing all of their data are labelled and loaded on time."

          A programmer might talk about working with the marketing department on the new customer-rewards program that will increase customer loyalty and market share. Operations people can tie their value to maintaining IT tools that the CEO uses every day. Can he turn on his PC and get the latest balance sheet and data on profitability by customer and product? Not without operations folks.

          Keep updating the speech as your job changes, and think topically. When the government upgraded the national security level to "orange" in February, Klinger's IT group had to segment the network and shut down some areas, with minimal disruption to the business. "That's something that involves people at every level," he says. "They can all talk about that."

          The venue doesn't have to be the elevator. Last year, when Endry's chief operating officer held breakfast meetings with employees, the IT people impressed him with how much they knew about their impact on the business.

          Nor should your audience be limited to the CEO. Klinger and his higher-level IT people often plan targeted quick-hit messages for certain executives. Thirty seconds with your chief financial officer, for example, might start a ripple that leads to a new financial system.

          "That 30 seconds might leave a seed that can cause something good to happen or generate another discussion in more depth," Klinger says.

          Regardless of the venue, the elevator speech is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. And by the way, make sure everyone in the department knows what the CEO and other top executives look like. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly good ride.

          Melymuka is a Computerworld (US) contributing writer.

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