7 attributes every IT leader must have

Leadership has little to do with one's title or seniority; it's an attribute that's earned over time through study, practice and commitment. Are you prepared to become a true leader?

7 attributes every IT leader must have
KieferPix / Getty Images

Becoming a true IT leader — someone who inspires teams to consistently reach new heights — requires skills that can only be acquired over time through hard work and a commitment to succeed.

Transformational leaders are typically described as lively, passionate, engaging and energetic. Such individuals aren't focused only on helping teams achieve their planned goals; they also work hard to help team members reach their full potential.

Becoming a respected and prized leader isn't easy, but it's a goal within reach of just about anyone who's willing to commit to the task. Here are seven fundamental attributes every IT leader needs to possess — and how to acquire them.

1. Agility

Leaders quickly recognize and act on emerging business and technology trends. Likewise, when an obstacle appears, they have the decisiveness and speed to quickly shift gears and modify their approach. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, forced IT leaders to make rapid changes to keep their enterprises operational and competitive, including the deployment of multiple new tools and technologies. "IT leaders must be agile in responding to [a] new way of working," says Tim Bridges, an executive vice president at business consulting firm Capgemini. "[They] must have the ability to make quick choices to position their teams and organizations for success."

Acquiring agility requires both time and experience. "A leader must believe they're not the smartest person in the room and, therefore, seek to learn and change themselves," Bridges advises. "Additionally, those who have experienced major change in the past will be more comfortable undergoing it once again and will likely be more willing to push forward with a major project."

Bridges notes that due to the challenges presented by COVID-19, many IT leaders are now well on their way to acquiring agility. "Years from now, these same IT leaders will be much more prepared for a quick pivot or to navigate a continuously evolving technology landscape," he says.

2. Vision

A strong vision of IT contributions and objectives has long been recognized as a core IT leadership attribute. "IT leaders need to sell the vision of a future — a faster, better, more connected future that's focused on the use of technology," states Chris Bedi, CIO at cloud platform software developer ServiceNow. As they face digital transformation challenges, IT leaders must be able to communicate changes effectively across the organization.

"As CIO, I like to view myself as the chief communications officer for digital transformation," he says. "Each piece of the business will be impacted by digital transformation, and IT leaders need to communicate with employees across departments on what this means for their work."

Unfortunately, even the clearest outlook and most well-defined plan can be disrupted by internal and external forces and events. "Organizational factors, such as shifting enterprise priorities, necessitate continuous recalibration as business models evolve," explains Paul Rohmeyer, an associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and director of the school's Master's in Information Systems program. Meanwhile, external drivers, including changing economic or market conditions, or crises such as COVID-19, can appear suddenly. "Such events require IT leaders to swiftly recognize and respond in order to enable, and motivate, IT teams to continue execution."

It's also important to remember that IT leaders aren't individual project or task contributors. "Their job is to articulate a vision and then provide guidance, tools, resources, training, coaching, mentoring and feedback to help their teams implement that vision, says Kelby Zorgdrager, CEO of IT training company DevelopIntelligence.

3. Empathy

An IT leader should respect and empathize with staff, colleagues and, most of all, customers. "A technologist who [has] empathy for the customer and has taken the time to understand what the customer needs and wants, creates solutions that truly addresses their problems," says Rohan Amin, CIO, consumer and community banking, at JPMorgan Chase.

Being able to deliver a great IT experience to stakeholders requires balancing vision against technology and resources, states Sharon Mandell, senior vice president and CIO at Juniper Networks. "Sit with your users and customers and watch how they do their jobs," she advises. Interact with your partners and try to learn as much as possible about their products and processes. "Understand their experience with the technology and ask yourself, 'What can I do to make it better?'"

Nurturing respect and empathy creates an open mind that's ready to embrace new outlooks and erase irrational prejudices. "Your company and customers will directly benefit from the innovations your teams create if you foster an environment where diverse people and perspectives can flourish," Amin says. "At the end of the day, your products need to be built by people who are similar to your customer base if you want it to be accessible to them."

4. Steadiness

Even during periods of instability, uncertainty or crisis, an IT leader must be unshakeable, prepared to continue pursuing their vision despite distractions and diminished resources. IT leaders who lose their cool during bad times are likely to waste time, make poor decisions and lose respect.

"Decisiveness under conditions of crisis is developed by individual and organizational preparation, as well as an ongoing awareness of often rapidly changing conditions," Rohmeyer explains. "This can only happen in an environment that's based on a culture of close cooperation between technology and business leaders." He adds that a capable leader establishes close internal partnerships long before an emergency strikes.

5. Authenticity

Authenticity comes from steadily building trust with staff, management, customers and business partners. Authentic individuals possess a unique aura. "We all tend to gravitate toward people who are authentically themselves," observes Jay Upchurch, CIO at analytics software provider SAS.

Authenticity isn't something that can be quickly cultivated. "It's natural in us all, but we struggle to let it out," Upchurch notes. It's worth the effort, however, since an authentic leader finds it easier to build trust with colleagues. "With trust, diversity, inclusivity and courage surfaces full freedom of thought, expression and innovation," he says.

Authenticity begins with becoming self-aware. "Think about your own personal values and why you hold those values to be true," Upchurch advises. Then summon the courage to be authentic and to share thoughts and emotions with others through consistent behavior and transparent communication. "If you’re authentic, those around you will reciprocate," he says. "When that happens, the flywheel of reinforcement starts spinning, giving everybody the confidence to be authentic."

6. Accessibility

A leader should commit to building close and mutually beneficial relationships with colleagues both inside and outside the enterprise. "The more an IT leader understands their business partners’ line of business and challenges, the better they will be positioned to deliver solutions and move the business forward," says Rob Byron, vice president of Keystone Partners, a corporate finance and advisory firm.

Accessibility spurs innovation and shared goals. "Successful IT leaders need ... relationships and partnership skills to understand the business and the challenges it faces in order to effectively help innovate and transform the business, especially during the global COVID-19 pandemic," Byron states. Establishing collaborative business-IT workgroups will help IT teams foster an enterprise-oriented attitude while encouraging business colleagues to integrate a technology mindset into business planning.

7. Curiosity

Many IT chiefs overanalyze or needlessly complicate decisions by failing to ask themselves a simple, basic question — why is this action necessary? "It's always important to understand the situation, the opportunities, our people, their motivation and get curious," says Tracy Ring, ecosystems and alliances analytics/AI leader at professional services firm Deloitte.

The key to spurring curiosity is to avoid assembling a team comprised of like-minded individuals. "Diversity is a critical step toward asking different questions, considering different viewpoints and unveiling ideas and opportunities we wouldn’t consider on our own," Ring observes. "Without [curiosity], we're simply standing still in our own silos with little evolution to push our clients and our work ahead in a new direction."

The best way to stay curious, Ring says, is to begin each day with the understanding that there's going to be something new to learn. "Curiosity drives authenticity, deeper relationships and the trust that speaks volumes in our work," she concludes.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams