The technical skills that earned you a seat at the table won't earn you a voice at the table. A new set of skills is essential for high-level IT success.
The CIO Whisperers
By Dan Roberts, CIO
PeopleImages / Getty Images
A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with Claus Jensen, CTO of CVS Health, about the shifting challenges facing today’s IT organizations. He calls the current state of affairs a triple whammy.
“We all know that the environment is changing — the rate of change accelerating. But also, the expectations of large enterprises are changing around social responsibility, consumer expectations, and more. And finally, what we expect of employees is changing: They now need to be more than just good soldiers. They need to be leaders, collaborators, visionaries.”
And CIOs today are expected to deliver on all three expectations, moving faster than ever, in new directions, while creating and retaining a new kind of workforce.
“But you can’t instantly re-engineer your corporate culture,” he says, “and you can’t just replace your team, either.”
So that’s the triple whammy, and for years, IT leaders have been telling me that the answer is not more of what got IT this far. In the past, IT was expected to demonstrate technical skills above — even instead of — the soft skills like interpersonal communication and influence, innovative thinking or customer focus.
Those are the competencies most needed today, but every CIO I work with hates the phrase soft skills. It doesn’t capture how essential they are to today’s IT professional. They’re the new core skills.
The new core competencies
Jensen’s triple whammy isn’t about the classic objective of “having a seat at the table.”
“We’re there,” says Sue Kozik, CIO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. “Now it’s about how we behave, how we enable.”
She has a simple lens on the issue: “I always ask my team, ‘If the business had a chance to use another group of people to get their IT work done, would they still choose us?’ We need to earn their business every day.”
Research my company performed with experts at Babson College identified an IT maturity curve that shows that leading organizations earn the business by becoming strategic partners, then evolving further to become “innovative anticipators,” the prime movers driving the business forward.
An IT organization moves up that curve by changing how it does things. It’s through showing up as a willing partner who understands the business and as an innovative strategist who understands the market that CIOs and their organizations earn the trust to enter higher-level discussions.
When we looked at how those leading organizations were doing it, hard skills were not the differentiator. In fact, we identified 14 core competencies, and technical acumen was just one. Every other essential ingredient for high-level IT success, the real differentiators, were what we’ve been calling a soft skill. These skills are how IT earns the trust to move further up the maturity curve and gets a voice at the table.
Steve LeMoine, CIO at Cree, maker of semiconductors and LED technology, groups the individual core skills into four competency categories: Domain expertise, transformative leadership, program/project delivery, and organizational leadership and development.
“When we do quarterly development internally, and when we interview applicants, we really look at those key areas, and the core skills within,” he says. “Domain expertise alone will barely get you in the door. And I’ve had people opt out when they realized how serious we are about things like transformational leadership.”
Curiosity shows up different
What kind of people are going step forward and learn to show up different? Sue Kozik, who has transformed many IT organizations over the years, has thorough, practical answers.
“I tell my people, you have to be curious,” she says. “If you genuinely are not interested in what we’re trying to accomplish here, then you’re in the wrong company.”
That means interest in their job, in IT’s role, in the company’s mission and industry.
“I have a pretty high bar for business acumen, for all 600 folks in my IT org,” she says. “That includes third-shift network operations center managers, who have to understand the healthcare business and how their role contributes.”
She asks her leaders, and expects them to ask their teams, how they fit into the organization, and how they can enable the business to do things differently.
And before you ask your team to change, make sure you’re up to the task yourself. When you feel like you or your organization are stuck, you’ve got to have the courage to figure out why.
“Nine times out of ten it’s because of you,” Jensen says. “But you can’t see the glass ceiling unless you very actively look at yourself.”
Have the courage (and the curiosity) to truly evaluate yourself. Ask peers, ask your boss: Why didn’t you get that promotion or budget request? Why didn’t IT have a voice in that strategic discussion or outsourcing decision?
“Most technical people have considerable analytical skills,” Jensen notes. “But when was the last time we applied them to ourselves?”
Not everyone makes the journey
Organizations most often make the commitment to the new core skills when a leader arrives with a vision — and the commitment to see it through. Asking people to change not just the way they work, but the way they behave and present themselves, is a huge challenge. Not everyone will be up for it.
“In four years, I bet you we’ve replaced more than a third of our team,” says Cree’s LeMoine. “And almost every one opted out because they realized the bar was being raised, and Cree’s transformation was larger they could sign up for.”
“I lost a third of my team early on,” Jensen says. “My boss thought I’d lose half.”
Both leaders have seen very, very low attrition rates since that initial shakeup. And losing people who didn’t share their vision only opened up the opportunity to bring in role models who’d set the right example. Which, Sue Kozik emphasizes, is vital to transformation.
“I think 99.9% of folks come to work every day wanting to do the right thing, so if they’re not approaching the work the way you’d like them to, it’s usually a leadership issue.” She says she’s asked herself whether she had enough people demonstrating the new core skills. “So, when vacancies permit, I bring in a role model who demonstrates that it’s safe to really adopt these new ways.”
Role models are so important, LeMoine says, that when he first arrived at Cree, he shut down the internship program. “We had two interns, and I told people, ‘Would you want your son or daughter interning here? What are they going to learn? What role models do they have?’”
That was 2015. Cree had 50 interns in 2018, and 125 this year. “We’re planning 250 to 300 interns next year,” he says.
Reshaping culture, redefining performance
These great leaders have a three-pronged response to that triple whammy of high enterprise expectations:
Recognize that you have to show up differently
Recognize that you have to shake up your organization
Recognize that not everyone’s going to help you get there
But once you’re committed to that level of change, how do you actually begin instilling a new culture built around the interpersonal skills that, frankly, have been traditionally undervalued in IT?
That’s the topic of the second part of this article, coming next week, when I ask these three leaders exactly how they beat the CIO triple whammy.