by John Edwards

7 traits that separate IT leaders from IT managers

Feb 16, 2021
CareersIT LeadershipIT Management

Is your career still rooted in the past? Here's how you can break free and reach new levels of leadership and performance.

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Most CIOs were, at previous stages in their careers, IT managers. Unfortunately, despite raises in pay and responsibility, many CIOs continue to behave and perform like managers rather than C-level executives.

An IT leader who can’t shake loose from bygone responsibilities and attitudes has a serious problem. Stuck in the past and unable to press forward, a CIO with a manager-fastened mindset is unable to unlock the full potential of his or her new role.

Transitioning from a manager to an executive is a process that requires awareness, reflection, and insight. To speed the journey along, consider these seven traits that separate an IT leader from an IT manager.

1. Inspirational

An IT leader inspires colleagues, encouraging them to eagerly embrace and cultivate technology change.

“It doesn’t require a title or a position of power to utilize this leadership skill,” says Mark Smith, a professor and business technologies and graduate studies leader at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz. “IT leaders who inspire others can mobilize people to finish projects and accomplish many great things.” To inspire staff and colleagues, a leader needs to acquire and hone strong emotional intelligence and communication skills, he adds.

IT leaders can also inspire teams with open, honest, and transparent discussions focused on technology strategies and vision.

“The best IT leaders open themselves up for feedback and dialogue, as well as inviting others at all levels to contribute to shaping the vision,” says Kim Bozzella, managing director at business consulting firm Protiviti. “The days of blind followers are gone, people want leaders who are approachable, communicative, and real.”

2. Collaborative

IT is embedded in an ever-expanding range of business activities. “Because of this, there are a large number of positive relationships that must be established inside an IT organization,” says Jerry Kurtz, executive vice president of insights and data at technology and business consulting firm Capgemini North America. “The success of an IT leader and his or her team will be largely determined by a combination of the quality of those collaborative relationships, and the ability to build an IT organization that’s capable and ready to follow the IT leader’s vision.”

Leaders who are able to influence greater collaboration across their organization and with external stakeholders will be able to drive successful change and gain more support for their IT and program managers, Bozzella observes. Additionally, leaders who foster greater collaborative innovation, getting team members to think differently and more creatively, will be able to achieve timely and fault-free delivery to clients, as well as deliver on core enterprise technology operations.

3. Enlightening

Giving team members the information they need to successfully complete their tasks is fundamental to ensuring that they possess long-term direction and context. The ability to tell the story of why there’s a focus on certain priorities, in a way that welcomes dialogue and involvement, is an essential leadership behavior, explains Loralie Thostenson, senior vice president and technology talent officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “Using this trait effectively motivates and inspires employees to achieve the desired results by creating an environment where individuals feel valued,” she says.

Having the ability to influence and communicate with employees and stakeholders at all levels of the organization, in various styles and approaches, is a critical differentiating capability. “People who truly exhibit leadership are able to create and sustain relationships that build trust,” Thostenson states. “The ability to create a persuasive narrative and be open to differing perspectives is critical to successfully defining a visionary roadmap with teams and stakeholders in regard to driving tech-enabled business transformation.”

4. Visionary

An IT leader must possess the ability to envision the enterprise’s future state and execute to that goal through change management, business acumen, influence, negotiation, and other skills that are necessary to achieve the required change, says Bill VanCuren, CIO of NCR.

“IT leadership is a lonely profession, as the masses will actually not want to change at first and may not follow the initial disruptors who are attempting to create the future state and lead the change,” he adds.

By necessity, IT managers tend to prioritize “keeping the lights on” — ensuring that projects are running on time and meeting targeted goals. IT leaders, on the other hand, must develop a more expansive, visionary outlook, focusing on new directions that can bring value to internal and external customers, says Rich Temple, vice president and CIO at Deborah Heart and Lung Center. “The visionary IT leader can engender enthusiasm from both customers and IT team members for new directions and opportunities [and] to learn new things and grow professionally,” he explains.

5. Empathetic

The best IT leaders are the ones who lead with empathy, says Michael Fahey, an executive counselor at IT research firm Info-Tech Research Group. “They understand that inspiring a team member to be their best requires authentic acceptance and understanding of the employee’s motivations and context,” he states. In other words, they take the time to know the individual and what makes them tick.

By contrast, a manager is typically mission-driven and focused on the work at hand. “While there’s obviously nothing wrong with being mission-driven, this rather blinkered approach can limit their effectiveness,” Fahey observes. “They may not be aware of what the employee is dealing with on a personal level, which means they won’t always be in an ideal position to inspire them to perform optimally.”

When you demonstrate through your words and deeds your respect and appreciation for your subordinates, you’re setting the stage for leadership excellence, says Brigadier General (retired) Gregory J. Touhill, the first federal CISO and currently an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. “During my military service, I learned that managers manage things while leaders lead people,” he states. “While there are dozens of essential traits great leaders have, I’ve found that the key trait that separates leaders from managers is empathy.”

Understand and have confidence in your subordinates, and let them manage the work that needs to be done, Fahey recommends. “Knowing who they are and what motivates them is one of the competencies that separates great leaders from the rest.”

6. Flexible

Flexibility, being able to deftly handle a complex and changing environment, is a key trait separating IT leaders from managers. “This requires fluid intelligence, the ability to reason and solve problems in unique and novel situations, and a growth mindset,” explains Charlie Atkinson, CEO of PeopleFactors, an online HR talent assessment platform.

Depending on the situation, a leader may have to draw on either management or leadership techniques to accomplish a particular task. “Senior roles are more weighted toward leadership,” Atkinson says. “A CIO will typically spend 20 to 30 percent of their time managing their direct reports, and the rest of the time leading.”

7. Compassionate

What truly distinguishes an IT leader is compassion — caring about employees as well as the enterprise’s mission, says Jon Check, senior director of cyber protection solutions at Raytheon. “A leader promotes career growth, well-being, continuous learning, and the acquisition of new skills for their entire team while serving as an advocate for them within the company.”

To reach this this level of leadership requires caring deeply about the team and focusing on helping team members reach their goals.

“The road to leadership requires patience, continuous focus, and effort,” Check says. “A leader must dedicate time and resources to help their colleagues and not just their own career trajectory,” he states. “While it may seem impossible to take on additional responsibilities, leaders make time for what’s important, and at the top of that list is ensuring the entire team will be successful and have the ability to grow.”