by Rich Hein

16 traits of great IT leaders

Oct 23, 201314 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

If you want to succeed as an IT leader you have to develop a set of traits that will serve you and those around you. Industry leaders and career experts share their thoughts on what behaviors make an IT leader great.

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Being an exceptional leader is about more than getting the job done. You’ve got to balance your team’s need with your goals and objectives as well as your emotions. You’ve got to think about things from other people’s perspective and sometimes do things that, while are in the best interest of the team, might not be great for you. While there a number of different leadership styles, the best leaders share some common traits.

Managing People in IT is Different

What it means to be an IT leader today is different from what is was 10 years ago. The command-and-control way of thinking has given way to an era of employee empowerment and engagement. Leaders need to understand that no one person can do it all, that the people they surround themselves with and how they manage them are the keys to their success.

While experts agree that most of what they do is part of people management 101, there are differences when it comes to IT. There aren’t many other areas that evolve as quickly as IT does and that can create unique challenges for an IT leader.

One example that is distinctive to IT, according to Pamela Rucker, chair of the CIO Executive Council’s Executive Women in IT is the need to know your employees. “The pace of change in technology means that you always have some segment of your staff that wants to learn the hottest new tools, and you need to keep them out front so that they stay engaged. On the other hand, you have other leaders that tire of always having to learn a new technology and really want to focus on the business aspect of technology delivery. It’s important for you to know how to manage both types of people and have the right blend of staff members to keep you technologically savvy and business-focused,” says Rucker.

Today’s IT Challenges

Allan Boardman, international vice president of ISACA and chair of ISACA’s Credentialing and Career Management Board knows how demanding the tech world can be. There are a multitude of major challenges that today’s senior IT leaders face, according to Boardman. These include the following:

  • The rate and pace of change.
  • The complexity and massive integration of systems, processes and applications, which often result in major outages and instability issues.
  • Ongoing pressure to cut costs year after year, despite having to meet increasing pressure from the business to innovate.
  • Threats to the business, particularly cybersecurity and privacy-related issues.
  • Being swamped in responding to regulations and audit issues, rather than getting on with helping the business make money and gain competitive advantage through its technology and information systems.
  • Still having to deal with legacy systems (many organizations are still on Windows XP because it’s complicated to move forward).
  • Not being in control, particularly with the rapid rise in outsourcing and cloud services.

“While there are some things one cannot change about individuals, some leadership traits can be learned. There are very few people who are natural leaders – leadership is something people have to work at. Knowing what your shortcomings are, and recognizing them as such, is half the battle,” says Boardman.

Both leaders and managers within IT who don’t continue to hone their craft will be left behind. Whether you’re the CIO, an IT manager or a developer incorporating the traits listed here will help you grow personally, professionally and ensure your continued success in IT.

They Always Deliver Results

This one, most would say is a no-brainer. In order to be a solid leader or manager for that matter you’ve got to consistently do what you say you’re going to do. “You don’t even get consideration if you don’t deliver results, “says Robert Reeg, president of MasterCard Technologies & Operations (MTO).

They Are Self-Aware

To be a self-aware leader you must know who you are, before you can look at yourself in the context of your company or in the context of your peers. “I don’t believe you can be an effective leader without emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Understanding yourself and your own limitations — what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, is critical to ensure you are surrounding yourself with the right people that maybe leverage your weaknesses or enhance your strengths,” says Dan Brodie, CIO of BuildDirect.

Emotional intelligence is knowing your strengths and weaknesses as well as your emotional triggers. Knowing this will allow you to better focus on the people you interact with, so that you can recognize and interpret what’s happening within them, and manage your interactions with them based on their emotions.

This is very difficult to do, according to Rucker, especially in heat of a corporate battle. “It’s absolutely vital, though, because emotional intelligence accounts for 80-90 percent of the difference between average and outstanding leaders, and is twice as important as IQ. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen this played out in real-life. Effective leaders know how to gauge the environment and the players, and manage their communication so that the listeners get what their emotions are telling them they need.”

They Continue to Learn and Grow

There are always fires to put out and deadlines to meet, but when you don’t have a lot of extra time, setting time aside to learn can be difficult. However, professional development and continued growth are the only surefire ways to make sure you don’t get left behind in the tech world. Whether you’re talking about technical skills or business skills, you’ve got to continue to evolve.

“The demands of leadership roles often make it easy keep your head down and focus on solving problems for your organization. There’s always another challenge or another threat, and you can build an entire image around solving problems and managing risk. Unfortunately, if you continue to do that, you will find yourself behind the eight ball, because the world continues to move and develop, even if you do not,” says Rucker.

How should you get started on the road to being a better leader? Robert Hewes, senior partner at Camden Consulting Group, recommends targeting a particular area where you feel like you need to grow such as communication, strategic thinking or conflict and decision-making just to name four. Then finding a venue to make it happen, whether it’s college courses, reading a book, going to seminars or whatever it takes. “Professional development is key in this fast-paced world. Honing and expanding one’s capabilities should be ingrained. It is a matter of staying value-added,” says Hewes.

They Work Through Other People and Delegate

The scope and depth of IT means that no one person can know it all. IT leaders need to surround themselves with people who complement their strengths and weaknesses. “Working through others is the only way to scale. If you don’t make this shift, you will hamper yourself and more importantly the entire organization. If this applies to you, you should intently and intensely focus on making directing and delegating a key change for you,” says Hewes.

They Have Great Communication Skills

Communication is fundamental skill needed to be a great leader or manager. As an IT leader you will likely work with people from all departments and walks of life. You must be able to clearly articulate your message.

Effective leaders know how to gauge the situation they’re in and determine what and how they need to communicate. They master their presentation style, their email, their negotiation skills and even their water-cooler conversation because they realize that communication is a part of their brand, and sends a message about their ability,” says Rucker.

You can’t have great communication skills if you’re not a good listener. “Remember, communication is a two-way street and listening is as important as “telling.” Great IT leaders listen incredibly well and ask great questions,” says Hewes.

They Are Authentic

“Leaders must know their own personality, style and values, and deliberately choose to lead with those instead of trying to be a poor imitation of someone they admire,” says Rucker. Trying to play the part of a great leader is both exhausting and distracting, so it’s better to be yourself.

“The most important aspect of my leadership style is to be myself versus what a textbook CIO might be. And while my team might have to put up with my sixth grade sense of humor, it means that I bring a positive attitude and a passion to work for the company, my team and my role and I hope that it’s infectious for my team, ” says Brodie.

They Are Decisive

You don’t always have the luxury of time. In some situations you will need to make quick decisions that could impact the entire organization. The easiest answer isn’t necessarily the right one and a good leader has to be thoughtful of the impact of each decision he/she makes especially when the chips are down. “An IT leader needs to be decisive. They need to make both quality and timely decisions,” says Hewes.

They Create a Safe-to-Fail Environment

Creating an atmosphere where employees are encouraged to take chances and are safe to fail gives workers the confidence to try new things and can spur innovation. “Knowing that something good can come out of a failing effort makes people less likely to shy away from difficult projects, and more apt to try something new. I’ve seen this work time and again,” says Rucker.

Creating this type of an environment is important, but it is hard to pull off, according to Hewes who says, “Often times we hear, ‘of course, we encourage people to take risks, but we don’t get enough of it.’ Why? It can be due to the consequences of what happens when something doesn’t work. If it is called out in a bad way, people will shy away from risk taking. Now, you don’t want people taking risks willy-nilly. Rather, it should be calculated risks in consciously chosen areas. The leader needs to help define the boundaries and act in the right way when a ‘failure’ happens. This takes vigilance over time,” says Hewes.”

They Are Adept at Problem Solving

If you’ve come up through the ranks of IT to be a leader, than you are likely a problem-solver at heart. This is one aspect that people who live and work in IT are pretty good at, according to experts. If that’s not you then don’t beat yourself up. The key is for the leader to recognize that problem-solving is not his/her strong suit and to rely on the problem solver on the team to rise to the challenge. “People often feel like they need to have all the answers. In reality you just need to know the right questions to ask,” says Brodie.

They Create a Collaborative Environment

Many IT pros who climb the ladder to leadership often stop being individual contributors. This means that they need to get their work done through other people. “Strong collaboration skills allow leaders to work with others to exploit synergies and deliver far more than they ever would be capable of delivering alone. Also, I think the leaders that are best at collaboration are those that have invested heavily in developing their internal and external networks. For instance, it’s far easier for me to work with people when I haven’t let a relationship go cold, instead of dropping in and asking for help when it’s only in my best interest,” says Rucker.

Collaboration is one of “those skills that technical people can look down upon,” according to Hewes. However, many great ideas and decisions come about because great minds worked together on a problem. That is collaboration. “To push on it – and say why? Simply put, no one has all the answers, especially to the most difficult challenges. A great IT leader will encourage collaboration at the right moments,” says Hewes.

A Sense of Humor

Morale and productivity are closely related. As a leader it’s your job to motivate your troops and give them the tools they need to be effective, and a sense of humor can go a long way towards doing that. A joke from the boss can make difficult times less tense and help foster a feeling that you are all in it together.

“I have noticed that some IT folks can take life a little too seriously. It’s important to loosen up sometimes. The most important traits are to respect others and to have a good sense of humor. Also, a leader should demonstrate that he/she has outside interests because it is important to show a healthy balance of work, outside activities and family,” says Boardman.

They Have Integrity

Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. People are only as good as their word and as a leader all eyes are on you. You’ve got to do what you say and be able to admit when you’re wrong.

“Leaders must display a strong moral character, such that their teams and peers can believe in them and trust what they say. When enterprise transformations and people’s careers are at stake, everyone needs to know that you aren’t operating in your own best interest, but that you are truthful in the things you say,” says Rucker.

Part of integrity is accountability. If you want to be a great IT leader you’ve got to be responsible for your actions and hold other people accountable for theirs. You can’t play favorites or pass the buck.

They Are Empathetic

A great leader has to be able to metaphorically put himself/herself in others people places to understand their point of view. Doing so will give you a deeper connection into both your employee’s and customer’s needs.

“Empathy is like walking in someone else’s shoes and understanding what the root cause is to get to the heart of the problem instead of just providing band-aid solutions. This allows us to provide a solution that has true value to the organization,” says Brodie.

They Know Their Customers

“You’ve really got to have the mindset that everyone is a customer,” says Reeg. That means whether you’re providing an internal tool to the marketing department or building a customer-facing mobile app, you’ve got to understand what your customers need and what they expect.

Hewes agrees. “Not doing this well is an issue that has been around for decades — usually stated in terms like, “IT just doesn’t understand what we need.” Listening and understanding what an internal or external customer actually needs is the trick. Listening and understanding customers should be a well-honed capability that a leader exhibits and gets his or her organization to exhibit.”

They Think Strategically

As a leader in IT, people will look to you to figure out how technology can help solve problems and help the business grow. In order to do that, you’ve got to know about more than just the technology. You’ve got to understand customer needs, the market, the competition and more.

“A great leader always needs to have the bigger picture in mind and keep an eye on the overall mission, vision and objectives. Aligning IT with the enterprise’s objectives and strategies helps create value and trust in information systems, while achieving the overall goals,” says Boardman.

They Know Their Leadership Style

Leadership style sets the tone and influences behavior that workers are going to imitate. A bad leader can cause your organization to suffer long after they are gone.

“We can all name incredible leaders who were known for their individual style — Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ronald Reagan, etc. Some people were outgoing and charismatic, others were straight shooters, laser focused, whatever. The point is, they not only knew their personal style, but they knew how to use it to help others be successful. For me, that’s the key. It’s not just about how to use my style to make me successful, but how I use my style to help others achieve their goals,” says Rucker.