Until recently if you asked tech leaders what management trends were on the rise, they’d frequently point to aligning digital transformation with business outcomes. That has changed. Partly driven by the pandemic’s lasting effects, forward-looking tech leaders are leaning into team-first leadership models that help attract, diversify, and retain top talent.
IT leaders pointed to the need for new ways of thinking about leadership to succeed in an increasingly virtual office landscape. Professional development is still key, they say, but upskilling is more varied — and the aims are more inclusive — than before.
By contrast, top-down leadership has fallen out of favor, IT leaders say, as organizations deal with a changing, empowered workforce that demands work-life balance and a chance to unplug while still excelling at delivering business value and growth opportunities.
Read on for tech leaders’ best tips for building stronger, more engaged teams with a sense of purpose.
Hot: Leading with purpose
Deloitte’s US CIO Program Leader Anjali Shaikh says modern managers lead by getting buy-in to their vision rather than leading using positional authority.
“CIOs and technology executives who will be successful will demonstrate purpose-driven leadership,” Shaikh says, “aligning the IT organization and technology strategy to a mission and core values customers, capital providers, and talent believe in and support. They need to build a tech culture and workforce that is engaged and focused on how technology contributes to the overall organization’s mission and purpose.”
Cold: Authoritarian leadership
Alex Budak, Berkeley Haas School of Business faculty and author of Becoming a Changemaker, agrees with Deloitte’s Shaikh that using your formal authority to get things done is out.
“Replacing it is the increasing importance of a leader’s ability to influence without authority,” Budak says. “This means leaning into persuasion, passion, and a sense of purpose to convince others to join you. Using authority to tell someone what to do might appear simpler, but it’s less likely to be sustainable than really engaging others to be part of your vision.”
Steve Taczal, vice president of services at Electric, recognizes the typical chain-of-command structure is necessary for accountability and reporting, but there’s a change afoot in the new hybrid work environment.
“It’s not necessary as a leader to give yourself the virtual corner office to establish hierarchy as that is becoming a thing of the past,” Taczal says. “A virtual leader needs to be very much in the trenches with their team and can prove themselves remotely not by their title, but by their availability, openness, and willingness to jump in wherever and whenever necessary to help their team accomplish the mission.”
Hot: Diversity through upskilling
Upskilling — especially for soft skills — is crucial in today’s ever-evolving tech landscape, says Apratim Purakayastha, chief technology officer at Skillsoft.
“IT leadership must anticipate change and prepare teams ahead of time to prevent immense disruption and frustration, as well as loss of competitive advantage,” Purakayastha says. “IT leaders must look at development holistically for their people, with an emphasis on power skills like managing virtual work and teams, communications, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. As the workforce becomes more distributed and diverse, these skills become essential for success.”
Cold: Overemphasizing process over results
Some organizations have come to rely too much on methodologies and frameworks such as agile project management, to the point that process has taken priority over getting results, argues Michael Bradshaw, CIO at Kyndryl.
“Agile management has over-indexed, and in some organizations, I’ve seen this start to create a self-fulfilling loop with no destination,” Bradshaw says. “No clear decision-making. No clear outcomes for customers. Leadership must have a roadmap — however imperfect. They need a long-term view of where they need to continue to provide vital, anticipatory services in support of where their business is going.”
Hot: Focusing on employee experience
Tech leaders are making a mistake by leaving employee experience at the bottom of their agenda, says Robert Grazioli, CIO at Ivanti.
“Sometimes C-suites deprioritize the employee experience in favor of what’s best for the bottom line, and that’s why IT needs to be the gatekeeper,” Grazioli says. “Because in a digital-first world, how employees interact with technology and their satisfaction with that experience directly relates to the success and value they deliver to the organization. The failure to achieve that shift of mindset will largely stagnate a company’s growth.”
Cold: Expecting employees to always be on
Vicky Thomas, vice president of product at Clockwise, says despite the fact that employees need downtime, connected collaboration tools and mobile devices are keeping workers tied in unhealthy ways to the office, inviting burnout and hurting the bottom line.
“The concept of always-on connection and productivity has become outdated,” Thomas says. “This is a runaway train — a vicious cycle in which we’ll never actually be able to do it all. However, I believe that we’re finally starting to see the long-term costs that this can have on ourselves, our teammates, and our organizations. People really do get burnt out, which makes us less engaged and more disenchanted with our work. IT leaders should actively work on setting clear boundaries while consciously building a culture that respects them.”
Hot: Embracing curiosity
You can improve the quality of your leadership, move faster, and see increased business value by leading more like a coach than a manager, suggests Rajesh Jethwa, chief technology officer at Digiterre.
“Leaders are switching to less directive ways of working and attempting to ask more questions rather than providing advice or answers,” Jethwa says. “This has emerged into the concept of ‘leader as coach,’ where the leader asks probing questions to allow teams around them to come to realize knowledge by themselves. Servant leadership and intent-based leadership still have their benefits when the way forward is clearer for either party, however the leader as coach recognizes the need for leaders to build a true learning organization around them.”
Cold: Traditional office policies
IT workers need flexibility to succeed, and leaders who embrace this flexibility are also more likely to find success, says Skillsoft’s Purakayastha.
“Going to the office every day is clearly out of favor,” he says. “IT workers want flexibility that allows them to separate work from the workplace, but still encourages face-to-face meetings for social bonds and fluid interactions like design sessions. And leaders that prioritize 100 percent measurable productivity on projects will find it difficult to retain talent. Productive time must be interspersed with creative time such that IT employees can innovate organically and prepare the company for disruptions.”
Hot: Having your employee’s backs
Kyndryl’s Bradshaw says compensation only goes so far in attracting and retaining talent. He argues that tech leaders need to focus on a growth mindset to be successful.
“We’re investing in employee skills and development,” Bradshaw says. “But the day-to-day cultivation of talent isn’t always about fancy programs, it’s about honest to goodness individual connections and discussions on how and where employees want to grow. The bottom line is employees need to know we have their backs and will be working with them to help chart their futures.”
Sarah Cornell, managing director of technology strategy and architecture at Protiviti, argues for a more collaborative, cross-functional team structure that welcomes input and provides flexibility.
“With the competitive labor market, companies offering a flexible, inclusive workplace with the ability for employees to upskill, improve their odds of attracting talent to build and sustain a culture of innovation,” Cornell says.
“Work-life balance and well-being of your employees is beginning to dominate the workplace, which ultimately builds a more loyal and productive organization, says Electric’s Taczala. The manager/worker relationship is becoming far less effective today and is seen more of a partnership within the team dynamic, where leadership works more alongside the team instead of the team working for the leader.”
Cold: Focusing on the back office
Deloitte’s Shaikh says tech leaders have an opportunity to lean into how their work facilitates the organization’s digital transformation and provides a sense of purpose to their workers. And it can’t happen by only focusing on day-to-day needs.
“If you’re a CIO and you’re only focused on back-office operations, you’re keeping your company safe and keeping it running,” Shaikh says, “but you’re not necessarily aligning your team to a common purpose for the organization or leaning into the full potential or value of what technology can impact.”
Hot: Disrupting the status quo
Joe Weider, chief technology officer at Lincoln Financial Group, says tech leaders can coast too long on their laurels, which sets the organization up for being lapped by its competitors.
“In today’s age, leaders must become so uncomfortable sitting still that they are constantly questioning what they or their organizations can be doing better or differently,” Weider says. “Be a disrupter. If you are not pushing your team to be in a race to beat your competitors, you will be left behind. Today’s young technology talent is brilliant, and they are pushing the standard of the technology experience and expectations further than ever before.”
Weider describes a successful disrupter as a “holistic transformation agent,” a leader whose vision of the future and tech-forward plans impacts the entire organization.
“We’ve heard about being an agent for change and we’ve all been through digital transformation,” he says. “Being a holistic transformation agent requires leaders to inspire everyone to be active participants in building the future of your company. Your people at every level of the organization, your business stakeholders and customers are critical to informing the systems and capabilities that will enable your company to keep pace and grow with the evolving marketplace.”
Remote work that took off during the pandemic shook up the typical office environment in positive ways that provided more creativity and freedom for IT workers. And those tech pros want those gains to continue in the future, says Electric’s Taczala.
“IT Leadership will need to continue its transformation of how we work and collaborate remotely and become more flexible than ever before,” he says. “They no longer need to control everything in a remote work setting, such as forced one-on-ones, mandatory cameras on, roll calls; … finding the balance will be key. It’s more important than ever to keep a focus on wellness while finding the right operational tempo that will keep teams energized and avoid burnout. None of this will require lowering expectations towards excellence. On the contrary, setting results-driven goals that continue to raise the bar on performance and remain successful.”