Do leaders switch off with technology and say “I don’t understand that IT stuff” too often?

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to Finish Cyber Security company, F-Secure’s annual conference in London.  Aside from the usual corporate hospitality trappings, they also had a great list of speakers.  I particularly enjoyed Rory Sutherland and Risto Siilasmaa.

Risto is the founder of F-Secure and Chairman of Nokia.  His talk is something that seems to have etched itself in my mind for about six months.  There were quite a few important points in his presentation – education, more women in technology and of course, artificial intelligence.

I remember his discussion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how he decided he needed to understand it.  It’s an important change in the technology industry, but of course in society as a whole.  Hopefully I do the talk some justice in what I remember – but essentially, Risto went off to a number of experts in the field, engineers, academics and the like.  Not even one could explain it in terms he could understand.

Of course, us techy people are always guilty of that.  However, we’re possibly sometimes guilty of not wanting Executives knowing too much, or perhaps, assuming they can’t possibly understand the detail.  But for the most part it’s often simply a communication problem.

If you don’t understand, then learn

Risto’s solution was simple, he said he went back to school and studied AI.  His presentation broke down some of the more difficult concepts of AI quite wonderfully.  I believe he said they were doing similar presentations to school girls in Finland too.  This of course applying itself neatly to what F-Secures theme of the event was – man and machine.  The marriage of managed services and AI process automation in cyber security products.

You may think that’s the whole point I’m about to make – Unleashed being an IT consultancy with a Cyber Security slant due to my long service (perhaps too long!) in the UK Nuclear industry.  However, Cyber Security and Artificial Intelligence have to be the least important points of why I found Risto’s presentation so memorable.

I didn’t get to meet him, but I could tell from his presentation alone that his attitude was vastly different to any senior manager or company leader I’ve met.   Now it could be due to his history in the technology industry, or the type of person he is.

Learning is an attitude, not necessarily a skill

I’m going to assume it’s the latter, mainly as I have a similar instinct to him.

As a business owner, I’d spent years absolving myself of all things Accounts related.  That darn MBA I studied, said that it’s not a core competence required of me to run the business – I should just find a good accountant and be done with it.  I also didn’t like numbers!

I ended up having many different accountants over the years with varying degrees of competence – who didn’t understand my business and, in some cases, didn’t understand the HMRC rules.  As such – I went back, conquered my phobia of accounts, learnt what I needed to know to do the job I wanted them to do for me and eventually found some accountants that I could trust.

A few things happened during that process – I became a better manager of the business, I developed new skills that I could offer to customers (IT and accounts are inextricably linked) but most importantly, the knowledge I gained enabled me to get the best experts.

Unleashed probably has its best successes with IT Managers, IT Directors and CIO’s – no real surprises there.  We can all talk on a similar level, I guess it could be said, we don’t need the translators!  However, unsurprisingly given my own background and as an organisation we move more into Digital Transformation of companies – a lot of my own personal conversations are with non-technical C-Level directors and senior managers.

I don’t understand that IT Stuff

From those conversations, if I got £1 for how often the phrase “I don’t understand that IT Stuff, I employ geeks and nerds for that – I’ll put you in touch with them” is used, then I guess I probably wouldn’t be pitching any “IT Stuff” anymore.  And this is the most serious point of this blog.

Being a tame and reformed geek, I’m hoping I don’t upset any of my people over this statement!  Nerds and geeks are not the best communicators.  Just as Risto had problems with asking experts to explain AI to him.  If you’re senior manager or chief executive and you’re relying on other people to be a buffer between you and technology – then you probably need to start thinking about a career move.

Know what you need to know

I’m not advocating every leader suddenly starts a degree in Computer Science.  Far from it, you simply need to understand enough about technology to manage the technologists working in and around your organisations.  It starts by focusing on outcomes and what you really want the tech to do for your business.

Technology is the new normal, leadership should understand enough about Accounting, Sales, HR, Marketing and Operations to ask the smart questions and know what the business needs.  IT in this respect should be no different.

Just as Risto had to teach himself about AI and myself about Accounts.  if you haven’t taken any time to understand Technology, then how can you be sure you’ve employed the right geeks or nerds?

One of the most important aspects of Digital Transformation is for senior management to fully embrace digital technology.  That starts by understanding it.  If you believe in your people but don’t understand them, that’s where companies like Unleashed can help bridge that gap.  If you need our help and want chat with our inner geeks or our inner managers, all you need to do is call.