5 key leadership skills an executive coach can help you master

Oct 26, 20239 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Making the leap from IT expert to business leader requires CIOs to communicate differently, foster new relationships, and develop greater confidence and executive presence. Here, coaching can help.

Black business woman using smartphone while working on laptop at office. Smiling mature african american businesswoman looking up while working on phone. Successful woman entrepreneur.
Credit: Rido / Shutterstock

When a civil engineering company went through layoffs during tough economic times, its 28-year-old project manager suddenly found himself promoted to the company’s top IT role. Just a few years after doing desktop support at the same firm, he was thrust into the position of IT manager, meeting with the CEO and running the show for everything tech.

“At 28, there were a lot of things I didn’t have experience with,” says Chris Cantrell. “At that point I was at the top of the food chain when it came to IT. I used to be the guy who fixed their printer and now they needed to see me in a different light. They needed to see me as a business executive, not as an IT technician.”

So, like a lot of IT people who find themselves taking on corporate leadership roles, Cantrell needed help communicating differently, understanding business needs, building and managing teams, and fostering confidence in his own abilities.

To do all of that, he sought help from an executive coach. And today, he’s not only still at Orlando-based civil engineering and surveying firm DRMP, but he helped it grow out of economic turmoil and is now a member of the company’s C-suite in the role of CIO.

“I learned how to connect with executives,” says Cantrell of his experience enlisting a coach. “Often in IT, you can get stuck focusing on what matters to IT but doesn’t matter to the business. Once I saw those variances, I could reframe the way I talked and thought about business needs. Instead of talking about routers, I talk about what they will do to help our business objectives.”

Cantrell, though, didn’t just learn to talk about business. He learned how to become an executive who helps propel the business with technology — a vital skill for succeeding in the role of CIO today.

The coaching difference

Executive coaching is a professional development tool that utilizes one-on-one sessions in which the coach guides and supports clients to resolve professional issues, cultivate leadership development, and boost areas where they’re lacking. Often lasting three to six months, coaching generally focuses on helping leaders who are in new roles or companies, or are nurturing growth potential.

Executives coaches can aid professionals in any number of leadership roles — from CEOs to CFOs, to department leaders — but CIOs and tech leaders often find themselves with specific needs in order to succeed in newly attained upper-tier positions. And they often also are faced with unique challenges when it comes to working with the business side and fitting in as company executives.

“Most IT people have gotten to a level of success in their careers because of their acumen technically,” says Larry Bonfante, executive coach and founder of CIO Bench Coach. “Now they’re in a leadership role and it’s a whole different thing. They’re using different muscles. They have to collaborate and communicate and drive change. It can be very uncomfortable.”

Bonfante, who was Cantrell’s coach, added that tech people often get to a certain level of success without having to be great communicators, manage large teams, or work outside of their own coding or project boxes.

People coming up through the IT ranks also often lack the bigger picture of how the business operates and its goals. And once they get into management, they are sometimes seen as being in a service role, giving them less perceived authority and ability to lead.

Tracy Podell, an executive coach and partner with Evolution, a Los Angeles-based international executive coaching business that specializes in startups and high-growth tech companies, agrees that being a CIO requires growing a completely different skill set than being a productive engineer or programmer.

“Often the [CIO] role can get into a ticket-taking mode — just responding to issues coming up,” she says. “They need to be involved in processes and business plans from the beginning and not just picking up a mess after something has happened.”

Here, working with an executive coach can elevate your leadership outlook by helping you develop and hone the following vital leadership skills.

1. The art of communication and influence

S. Yvonne Scott, CEO and founder of CIO Concierge, an executive coaching consultancy based in Scottsdale, Ariz., notes that for a CIO or other tech leader to get the C-suite on board for a potentially expensive, time-consuming, and complicated tech update or overhaul, they need to be able to explain the business value of making the move. It can’t be about new tech for new tech’s sake. Effective CIOs need to be able to put aside technical jargon and acronyms and talk about how they can make the company more competitive or implement a new business course.

“You don’t want to be in a meeting where you have a group of people who don’t know what you’re talking about, and instead of listening to your true message, they’re focused on figuring out what you’re saying,” Scott says. “If that’s happening, it’s hard for you to make an impact.”

Robby McDonald, CIO and VP of information systems at McIlhenny Co., maker and distributor of Tabasco, said coaching has taught him to communicate in a way that ensures business executives understand how his work affects the company.

“I tend to try to define the business goal and take that and then lay out how that technical solution will achieve it, help them achieve it or make it easier for them to achieve that business goal,” he says. “When I talk in business terms, that’s when I get more acceptance.”

2. Relationship management

At its core, relationship management is about enabling collaboration. And because everything executives get done they get done through other people, powerful executives learn how to be influential. To do that they look at issues through others’ prisms, build trust, and create a cooperative environment.

“Relationships are like bank accounts,” Scott says. “I have to deposit a lot of positive things in our relationship, so when — not if — I need something, you’re willing to give it to me. I need to invest in those relationships. Many people who gravitate toward technology like detailed work. They’re often introverts. They don’t necessarily want to build relationships. But you have to cultivate that all the time.”

Creating these relationships across the IT team and across the executive board are critical, especially given that IT often is viewed as a cost or a necessary evil, according to Bonfante. “[IT leaders] have to get out of their heads, stop focusing on just their needs, and focus on how they can help other executives achieve their agenda,” he says. “It’s a give and take.”

3. Developing executive presence

New executives often haven’t spent much, if any, time speaking in front of a board of directors, which, like many C-suite responsibilites, can be a tough adjustment. And here’s where building up your executive presence comes in, coaches say.

“I’m not talking about running around in a $5,000 suit. I’m talking about being credible,” says Bonfante. “You want to be seen as another executive, another peer who is included in conversations and plans. That’s a big change if you’re used to working behind the scenes.”

Cantrell notes that many business executives don’t always think to include IT leaders in conversations about outmaneuvering competitors or launching new marketing plans. Creating an executive presence means making sure you’re an active participant in these meetings.

“You have to get yourself into these discussions,” he says. “You need to make others understand that IT weaves into every nook and cranny of the business. Then you’ll have a seat at the table.”

4. Dealing with office politics

Since human interactions are part of every business, there’s no getting around office politics. Everyone has to deal with the machinations that come with people pushing their own agendas or attempting to outmaneuver others. But the bigger the seat someone has in a company, the more politics come with the job because there are more people to manage, and more egos and aspirations to work around.

CIOs need to learn how to work around and restore difficult relationships, and influence technology needs and business decisions.

“You can’t avoid learning how to deal with this,” Bonfante says. “There’s so much that’s intertwined. You have to see how you can help people accomplish their agendas. Even people who aren’t political animals have to work on relationships to get the most out of their jobs.”

How to manage a team

Leading a productive and efficient team is about more than just having people with the right skill sets and adequate staffing. It’s also about building trust within the team and making workers feel empowered.

For Jesse Rey, director of software development at Goya Foods, a big part of building a strong team is being an empathetic leader who is looking out for the people who work under him.

“As I became a manager, I had to manage people I’d just been peers with,” he says. “I’d never interviewed people, onboarded people, structured a team for growth, or managed anyone. I needed to create a culture that people wanted to be a part of.”

Executive coach Podell says one of the things she works on with IT clients is building trust, not just with other executives, but down the line in their own teams.

“You have to take time to build strong relationships,” she says. “It’s important to create an open dialogue where you can give people feedback and they can give you honest feedback. They need to know you care about them and that they achieve their goals. Building trust on your team is paramount.”