by Rich Hein

8 leadership skills you need to be a successful IT executive

Jul 22, 20138 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

The leadership skills that helped you climb the IT ladder aren't the same skills you need to succeed in the C-suite. Learn the leadership skills you need to break through to the top.

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Do you have the leadership skills you need to make it to the executive suite? Few transitions are more difficult than moving from a managerial position to a top leadership role. It takes more than hard work and technical skills to succeed at the highest level. The complexity and breadth of projects at the CIO level can quickly overwhelm those who have worked in siloed managerial positions.

As a director or senior IT person, you’re at the point in your career where you have to realize that “the skills that got you your seat at the table aren’t the ones that will keep you there,” Pamela Rucker, chair of the CIO Executive Council’s Executive Women in IT, says.

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You have to empower yourself to move forward and understand that what it takes is a dedication to professional and personal improvement. Look at the leaders around you. Chances are many of them started at the bottom just like many IT pros, and if they can do it so can you. To aid in your journey we asked CIOs, career coaches and other experts what skills it takes to get into executive office.

Honing your leadership skills

When moving from an IT professional to an executive position getting away from your functional expertise and the things you know well, and forcing yourself to broaden your understanding of the company, your products or services, your customers, and your industry can be tough.

“Too many people hang their hat on knowing a technology when those skills are becoming more of a commodity. The higher-level skills are those around company strategy, product development and customer-focused innovation. Big data, cloud and CRM can all be outsourced,” says Rucker.

One of the biggest hurdles faced by new executives is the loss of control, according to Bob Boudreau, CEO of WinterWyman, an IT recruitment firm in the Northeast. “If you’re used to getting things done yourselves then, in some terms, you lose a bit of control because you shouldn’t be the one with your hands on the keyboards making things happen. You have to trust the people who you work with that they will do the job even better than you,” says Boudreau.

David Brookmire is a corporate professional development consultant, has spent the last several years doing leadership and team assessments, as well as team coaching; prior to that he worked for the likes of Fritos and General Motors working in HR and talent management.

“You have to become more of a leader and less of a manager. Management is planning, organizing, delegating and controlling. Leadership is typically vision, inspiration and motivation. These skills become more and more important the higher you go up the ladder,” says Brookmire.

Having to manage your peers can create an interesting dynamic. “You have to be able to change that relationship in a way that establishes the hierarchy without alienating your peers. That’s tricky,” Brookmire says.

While it’s not unique to the technology field, Hugh Scott, CIO at Energy Plus at Energy Plus Company, says that dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty is a critical part of the job. “Every senior leader has to have that skill and capability. The crux of making the transition from technical specialist to leader is making that leap,” says Hughes.

So what exactly will help you reach the executive level? Here are eight tips that will help you make your move.

1. Know your leadership style

Self-knowledge can be a make-or-break attribute. Knowing what you do well and where you need work is paramount to long-term success in any field, but it’s especially important in IT where things tend to move at a frenetic pace.

“One of the most important aspects of being an IT executive is knowing what type of leadership style you have, learning to use that style to your advantage, and knowing when to tweak that style based on who you will be meeting with,” says Rucker. “For instance, if you’re a charismatic leader with big picture vision, but you’re meeting with a CFO that is a detail-oriented pessimist, you need to know when to drive down to the data to relieve any fears.”

2. Focus on strategic communication

Knowing how to deliver your message to different audiences is critical. “You need to have the ability to create and manage relationships with peers, coworkers and others. You really need to think of yourself as less of a technologist and more of a general manger. You’ve got to be able to understand the business and understand the impact that you and your team has on the business and be able to articulate that to other partners and within your own team,” says Hugh Scott, CIO at Energy Plus Company.

As a leader you need to get your message through to people at all levels of the company with clarity, which can be challenging, according to Rucker. “It’s about knowing how and when to shift the story so that everybody gets it and understands what it means for them. It’s having the ability to use marketing, media, meetings and methods to change how your company or your customers think.”

3. Learn how to develop talented high-performance teams

As an executive, a key trait is the ability to get things done through other people. The best leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. “Technical skills are what get you to a senior position but when you get to a leadership position you’re going to spend 90 percent of your time managing people. Doing that correctly is all about leadership. It’s creating that vision and making people want to follow you,” says Brookmire.

Team leadership is an important skill, according to Brookmire. “If you think of an orchestra, you can think of yourself as a section leader now, but as you move up you have to become the conductor and bring all the sections together. It requires someone who can truly lead,” he says.

You have to learn to let go, trust your people and delegate. “Your job is not to be the smartest person in the room. Your job is to hire people who are smarter than you. You have to get the best thinkers in the room, particularly people who complement your weaknesses,” says Boudreau.

4. Develop a strong technology strategy

Having a vision is one thing, but being able to turn that vision into an executable strategy is another. “They [new IT leaders] must learn what strategy means at the ground level and how to lead the times of technological change that comes from great ideas. They also have to learn how to use technology to create value both inside and outside the organization. It’s no longer about implementing the latest tool to stay technologically relevant; it’s about tying technological change to bottom line results, “says Rucker.

5. Understand complex business problems

With a background in IT, you are accustomed to focusing on the problems directly in front of you. At the executive level, you have to know the nuts and bolts of the business and how those projects fit into the bigger picture.

“Moving into an executive role requires the ability to think about problems that have multiple origins, conflicting stakeholders, and dynamic environments –where changing one facet can have immediate unintended consequences,” says Rucker.

6. Know how to lead in a crisis

Midnight outages, failed deliveries and long-term budget cuts always threaten the successful delivery of enterprise transformations, projects and initiatives. If you are going to be an effective IT leader, you must learn how to recognize a crisis when it happens, manage it and guide your team to stay ahead of the curve.

“When things go wrong, and they will, you have to know how to manage the fallout in the ivory tower as well as on the ground so that you maintain your status as executive leader. Getting up gracefully is a skill well-learned, especially when the economy, poor profits, or external events knock you down. It happens to everyone, but your leadership character is defined by how you handle it,” says Rucker.

7. Be able to market IT to the business

As an IT leader you have to be leading the charge. You have to educate your peers and stakeholders on the value that IT can bring to the table. One way to do that is to let people know about successes. They could include how a change in processes increased sales or how updating the company’s Web software platform increased customer satisfaction. Whatever the case is, you have to be comfortable talking about your successes and the solutions that technology can help implement.

8. Know the corporate culture and be willing to change it

Doing things a certain way simply because that’s the way you’ve always done it won’t cut it at this level. You’ve got to be prepared to ask the tough questions. Every decision you make can ripple throughout the organization.

“Spend the time to understand the environment you work in; create a dialogue with executives, managers and those in the field; and develop a sphere of influence where your leadership is valued and your personal brand is supported. Work to create an environment with them where you have shared values and beliefs that feed in to the culture you’re trying to build,” says Rucker.