How to build leadership DNA skills

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

If you weren’t born with the leadership skills you need to be successful as a CIO in the continuously-changing environment we work in today, don’t worry. You can evolve them.


If you’re lucky, you’ve had an amazing boss at some point in your career. Someone who helped you grow, solve problems and guide you to the next stage in your career.

Mine was my first manager, who led our multi-disciplinary team as we implemented a massive customer care solution. There were more than 100 people on the project, yet we each felt he knew us well, understood what information we needed to be successful, and made leadership look easy. Even now, more than 20 years later, he still comes to mind when I think about natural leadership qualities.

If you’re worried that leadership doesn’t come naturally to you, fear not. In the same way that epigenetics teaches us that external factors can influence our biological DNA, you can adapt and ultimately evolve your leadership skills as well.

I don’t disagree with the books and research that encourage you to “focus on your strengths”. It’s a great place to start. But there are leadership skills you need to bring to the table to keep pace with your evolving role, and if these skills don’t come naturally to you, you need to adapt.

Why bother? Well, what got you here won’t get you there.

CIO’s 2016 State of the CIO report indicates many companies say they are “undergoing continuous change,” with 45 percent of CIOs reporting that leading change efforts is part of their role. There isn't time to wait for formal change management efforts to cascade from the top. You need to make sure your team has the knowledge, skills and ability to meet the ever-changing needs of the business.

More importantly, if your team only hears from you when bigger changes are happening, they’ll always feel like change is being done to them, rather than a continual, agile process that engages them, whether on a small or large scale.

This is the essence of effective change leadership -- having the right skills that become so ingrained in your daily work that they feel natural and almost effortless. Then, these practices can be amplified for larger changes or impacts, and your team will know how to respond. Change becomes a natural part of their day-to-day as well.

Where to start? Here are a few of the key skills you need.

Communicate often and connect your team to critical information

Gallup research shows employee engagement is highest in employees whose managers communicate regularly, whether by phone, digital or face-to-face.

The biggest complaint I hear from managers is that they’re uncomfortable talking to their team, particularly about the “soft stuff” like career development. Fair enough, but you’ve got to get over it.

Hate to write? Hold weekly stand up calls (or daily, if you’re in a particularly intense phase of work) and share updates on critical milestones or changes.

Hate to talk? Practice to help you get over your fears. Regular 1:1s with your directs are important, and should cascade through their teams as well.

Add other forms of communication too, whether blog posts, articles, Slack or Yammer updates, AMAs and other forms of communication that let people know more about what’s on your mind.

Coach, and model a learning mindset.

Continuous change means needing to learn and adapt. Part of it comes from embracing learning yourself, and encouraging others to push outside their comfort zone. Your role as a leader isn’t to micromanage, but coaching your team towards the right answers.

Not sure how to coach? It’s a critical skill for leaders today, so learn how to do it well. Often it starts with asking the right questions.

Understand and solve your workplace culture issues

Culture is the responsibility of all business leaders, not just HR, and 92 percent of business leaders say culture is a key priority in 2016. The employee experience in your organization is ultimately one of the biggest influencers of your customer experience. Start to think of it as a continuum, and figure out where the gaps are impacting your customers.

Don’t know what the issues are? You’ve likely had some involvement in HR technology decisions, but you need to understand the data, and find the leading indicators that can help you make changes before they become issues.

It will take time to figure out where you need to build new leadership capabilities. Leverage your strengths as a starting point, but then work on figuring out what gaps are holding you and your team back from being competitive in today’s environment.

Certainly, some leaders are born with natural leadership strengths. Even if you don’t feel you have the right ones, you can start to evolve your leadership style and continue until happens naturally. Your team needs you to figure it out, or all of you are going to be left behind in the fast paced, highly complex and rapidly changing world of work.

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