IT leaders have gotten the message: To successfully perform their jobs, they need more than technical skills. They also need general business acumen, industry knowledge, and accounting talent. Some expertise in marketing, operations, cybersecurity, and other functional areas is important, too.
That has been the message coming from veteran CIOs, executive advisors, and management consultants in recent years.
Such advice, however, speaks only to what CIOs need to successfully manage the IT department — that is, to deliver operational excellence and meet key performance requirements. To really stand out, the best CIOs — like all top executives — must also know how to lead.
Here, veteran CIOs and executive leadership experts highlight the essential traits required to be a standout IT leader today.
1. They deliver
Although it’s true that leading, which is about visioning, is not synonymous with managing, aka accomplishing tasks, true IT leaders are indeed “great at the business of IT,” says Eric Bloom, executive director of the IT Management and Leadership Institute and part of the Society for Information Management (SIM) Leadership Institute.
In other words, they excel at managing IT budgets, projects, staffing needs, and so on. They have some, although not deep, understanding of the various technologies within their IT portfolios. And they understand how IT interrelates with cybersecurity and the other functional areas of their organizations.
This stellar job performance is foundational to being a great IT leader, Bloom explains, because, first, “IT people respect technical ability”; second, it allows managers and execs to help their staff grow technically; and third, that knowledge enables IT managers and execs to understand their teams’ capabilities and limits, knowledge that enables those managers and executives to push their staffers to on-the-job excellence while simultaneously protecting them from being assigned impossible-to-perform tasks.
As such, they “know what’s doable based on the technology and the skill sets on their teams. It allows them to set up their teams for success,” Bloom says — a mark of real leadership.
2. They are excellent communicators
For years, CIOs have heard that they need great communication skills. That is more so today than ever before, Bloom and others say, pointing to a few reasons why.
To start, many — if not most — CIOs are leading a more diverse workforce that is geographically distributed and working remotely. Additionally, they are part of executive teams that are likewise virtual and distributed.
Furthermore, CIOs now must engage a wider spectrum of stakeholders, from their own IT teams to business project owners to their C-suite peers, the CEO, board members, and sometimes even outside customers and partners. And they are expected to brief each group on their technical roadmap and vision in ways that each and every one of those groups can understand and embrace.
All that, Bloom says, requires the CIO to formulate much more intentional and deliberate interactions because “you could come up with the best vision for IT, but if you can’t articulate it to those you want to motivate, it will fall on deaf ears.”
Info-Tech Research Group quantified the importance of good communication skills for IT leaders, noting that its research found that every 10% increase in communications yields an 8.6% increase in stakeholder satisfaction with IT.
3. They influence others
Great IT leaders know how to use their communication skills to not only exchange information but also to influence, says Eric Sigurdson, CIO practice leader at leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
Granted, the ability to influence has been a longstanding trait of leaders in all areas. But Sigurdson says it’s a more critical skill now for IT executives given that technology’s contribution to enterprise success has dramatically increased.
For example, a growing number of CIOs now report to CEOs and are equal peers to all the other chiefs in the C-suite, Sigurdson says.
“Because they can’t go to a boss to get issues resolved, they have to be able to influence their peers. They have to solve problems horizontally,” he adds.
Similarly, modern CIOs have assumed more responsibility for deliverables outside of IT, namely digital and tech-enabled business initiatives, which require CIOs to bring other executives and teams along for the journey.
Consequently, Sigurdson says, “CIOs need to be able to not just teach but also to engage other senior leaders on meaningful topics and work with their peers on challenging tradeoffs in order to succeed.”
4. They are assertive
Assertiveness is another trait of great IT leaders, says Jim Knight, executive director of the SIM Leadership Institute.
He explains: “A lot of IT folks still, today, become more like order-takers and feel subservient to what we call the business. But they need to be able to push back on business requests that don’t make sense. That goes hand in hand with having business acumen, knowing the business, and knowing the industry, so you can understand the business value of the project.”
To be clear, Knight says being assertive is not about being uncooperative, dictatorial, or aggressive; this is not about returning to the days when IT was viewed as the Department of No. Rather, “it’s applying yourself to what’s right, and doing that in a professional way. It’s saying, ‘Let’s have a conversation about it.’ That requires confidence — confidence in your IT skills and in your business skills,” he says.
For instance, assertive CIOs can confidently push back on demands for unrealistic project deadlines or unworkable strategies, using their communication and influencing skills to convert others to their perspective, Knight says.
These IT leaders “are not afraid to use knowledge to convey their points, explain what won’t work, and show [others] the path that can be done and what supports — like extra budget or more time — that it will take,” adds Knight, who prior to his SIM role worked in various IT leadership positions, including global CIO at Chubb Insurance.
5. They have faith in other people
Great IT leaders also recognize greatness in others.
Longtime IT exec and former consultant Jamie Smith calls this “being people positive.”
“It’s having a belief in your team and their abilities and helping them do their best work,” he says, noting that to do this, managers and executives must recognize that “problems are best solved by the teams where the work is being done versus being Bobby Fischer and moving all the chess pieces around.”
He adds: “The complexity of what we’re doing in IT is increasing, and [IT managers and executives] can’t be command-and-control anymore. Being aware of that is a huge differentiator for who will be most successful.”
Smith, now CIO of the University of Phoenix, says he has seen the value of taking this approach.
Early in his CIO tenure at the university, his IT department experienced a systems outage as it worked on migrating from a data center to the cloud, he says.
“It was with a team that was still relatively new to me, and they kept saying, ‘Give us 20 more minutes.’ I had to lean in and say, ‘Ok.’ That showed them that I believed in them, and that helped them trust and support me,” Smith explains.
6. They are decisive — even when short on facts
Technology is evolving at a furious pace, and IT — and the organization as a whole — must be capable of moving just as quickly.
“To lead today, you must have the ability to make high-velocity and complex decisions without all the information on hand; you need to be able to operate in a less certain world and make a high-quality decision without all the information,” Smith says.
He points to the circumstances around emerging technologies such as generative AI to demonstrate this point. Those CIOs who formulated good strategies with the limited information they had as the tech hit the market were the ones most successful in leading their organizations into the future — while “those who needed lots of details before making a decision are having trouble keeping up,” he says.
But it’s not all about making good decisions fast, he says; it’s also about creating the right safety nets for such actions.
CIOs who can decide fast and “limit the blast radius” of potential failures by using, for example, agile development principles and iterative delivery, are the standout leaders, Smith says. That’s because this approach enables them to learn and test without going all in. “They experiment and can come back if it doesn’t go well,” he says, noting that this tactic gives people the confidence to follow where those IT leaders decide to go.
7. They attend to their teams
Leaders don’t spend all their time focused on themselves, says Bev Kaye, founder and CEO of BevKaye&Co and a speaker, consultant, and author on career development, employee engagement, employee retention, and leadership.
Leaders spend a significant amount of energy getting to know those who they lead, too, Kaye says. They know what motivates individual team members and what matters most to them. They know their strengths and how they can best contribute to making a strategic vision a reality.
According to Kaye, leaders bring the same curiosity to building relationships with their teams that they bring to solving technical and business problems. These leaders seek out additional information and more details from their team members. They ask questions to better understand what individuals on their teams think so that, as their boss, they can better support them. And they pick up queues, such as body language or the mood of a room, to intuit how people are really feeling, enabling them to know to pause and dig into what may be causing that issue.
“It all relates back to curiosity,” adds Kaye, author of multiple leadership books, including Learn Like a Leader: Today’s Top Leaders Share Their Learning Journeys and Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go. “This comes from a curiosity about your own team.”
8. They are inquisitive — and adapt to what they learn
In addition to having a strong IQ and a good emotional quotient (EQ), Sigurdson says IT leaders also have a passion for learning. That is, they have a high learning quotient (LQ).
This pursuit of growth and a corresponding willingness to change in response to that learning enable managers and leaders — whether in IT or elsewhere — to determine what’s ahead and how they and their teams can get there, Sigurdson explains.
“In addition to EQ and IQ, this commitment to lifelong learning ensures you’re not being left behind,” he says, adding that IT execs need to pair their LQ with their communication skills and ability to influence in order to get others to follow where all their learning is taking them.
9. They have a positive perspective on change
Although many IT execs are capable of devising and implementing change management plans, those who are true leaders actually view change as an opportunity and convey that positive perspective to others.
“You have to believe that the faster the change, the greater the opportunity, and that while things aren’t always going to go well, despite your best efforts, even those obstacles can be opportunities to get better, to learn, and to grow,” Smith says.
He acknowledges that this perspective on change, like most leadership traits, does not come naturally to most people; rather, it’s something that comes through intentional practice and experience.
But once you cultivate the ability not just to manage change but also embrace it and get others to do the same, you will have truly demonstrated your leadership chops, Smith says.
Careers, CIO, IT Leadership, IT Skills, Relationship Building
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