by Martha Heller

5 key qualities IT leaders should cultivate

Nov 10, 2015
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Jeff Donaldson, executive director of GameStop Technology Institute, looks for these five qualities in his IT coworkers and employees.

Mobile architecture, data science, business process expertise, agile development — the list of hard skills CIOs need to bring into their organizations through new hires is a long one. Add to this some tough-to-find soft skills, such as critical thinking, communication, and business acumen, and you have a major talent challenge on your hands.

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Jeff Donaldson, Executive Director of GameStop Technology Institute

While you are busy hiring for these hard and soft skills, you might consider thinking about the broader personal attributes you want to cultivate in IT. The more you understand these attributes, the better you will be able to develop a culture that can adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Jeff Donaldson, former CIO and now executive director of GameStop Technology Institute, has done his share of thinking about the personal attributes important to the technology organization at his $9 billion retail gaming company, and came up with the following five qualities.

1) Value trumps size

How large a team have you managed? How big is your budget? We in the executive search business are repeatedly guilty of assessing talent by metrics — the bigger the better. This has to change, according to Donaldson. Empire building is out.

“We have to get away from the idea that career trajectories should be measured by how large an organization a person has managed in terms of teams and assets owned by the company,” he says. “In the future IT organization, leaders will manage assets that the company doesn’t own. A career should be measured by the value a person delivers to the company, not by what they own.”

After all, in the world of cloud services and crowdsourcing, most of an IT leader’s resources exist somewhere outside of the company. “You will be relying more and more on assets that you procure,” Donaldson says. “If you’re going to be a great collaborative leader, you need to stop counting owned assets.”

2) Get comfortable with ‘not invented here’

Most companies have been outsourcing for years now, but IT organizations are still rife with managers who believe that if you can’t touch it, you can’t manage it. “We need leaders who are happy to use someone else’s work to deliver value to their company,” says Donaldson. “You don’t have to create everything in-house. It is far more effective to use public APIs and components off the shelf. But if you are going to take advantage of partnerships, you have to lose the mentality that you have to develop your solutions yourself. By relying on the work of others, you’ll move faster.”

3) Be data driven

Being data driven doesn’t mean that everyone in IT needs a degree in data science, but “our businesses are data driven, and as an IT leader, you have to develop the mindset that everyone in the company is making decisions through data,” says Donaldson. “These could be decisions about delivering customer value, about your changing marketplace, or about the optimal cost structure for your business. Whatever it is, all of your decisions should be data driven. Gut feel is no longer enough.”

Donaldson does not expect his IT leaders to spend their days with their heads buried in spreadsheets, but he does expect that “they will have enough knowledge to understand the instrumentation needed to collect data, the mechanisms by which data is stored and accessed, and the techniques that are typically used to analyze that data. IT has to have a strong base of talent that is data centric.”

4) Have a human-centric sense of design

To Donaldson, this might be the most important skill of all. “Whether we are delivering a product to employees or to customers, human-centered design will become fundamental to what we do. We have to have that talent in our companies.”

5) Love learning

“I used to say that IT changes so quickly that you have to learn a whole new set of skills every 18 months to remain fresh,” Donaldson says. “Lately, it feels more like every six months. So, a skill that we look for is the ability to change and learn.”

Change is happening so fast, in fact, that Donaldson does not rely on corporate training programs to keep his team’s skills fresh. “I don’t think that traditional training programs can even keep up with the pace,” he says. “As CIO, you need constantly to be seeking out the best training available in the external marketplace to keep up.”

These days, IT professionals hail from marketing, finance, IT and pretty much every other department in a company. Having a well-defined set of overriding personal attributes will allow you to build an effective culture regardless of background or skillset.

About Jeff Donaldson

Jeff Donaldson has been the executive director at GameStop Technology Institute since March 2014. Prior to that, Donaldson was the senior vice president of IT and CIO for GameStop for just over seven years. Donaldson joined the company in June 2000 and was previously with The Associates and Sabre Holdings. He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University.