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10 critical people skills today's CIOs and IT leaders need

Learn about 10 of the most important soft skills -- from communication to empathy -- and why they are critical to successful technology leadership.

Succeeding in technology leadership today -- like scoring wins in any leadership arena -- rests on people skills.

That's because as companies focus more on boosting their digital capabilities and their reliance on technology, CIOs and IT leaders must work with others on digital transformations, initiatives to measure supply chain emissions and other important enterprise projects. People skills, often referred to as soft skills, social skills or emotional intelligence -- are the oil that facilitates the success of these complex technology projects.

Here are 10 of those softer skills that technology leaders need.

Communication skills

The ability to exchange ideas with other people in an effective manner may be arguably the most important soft skill and an umbrella skill for other subcategories. In other words, communication is a master people skill every CIO and IT leader needs.

Good communicators understand their audience, including the challenges their audience faces, said Jeff Ton, president of Ton Enterprises, an IT business and careers-focused consultancy based in Indianapolis.

CIOs, in particular, should possess the ability to communicate well since job success requires cross-functional collaboration.

CIOs may regularly meet with other members of the C-suite, boards of directors, stakeholders involved in specific technology projects and deployments, and their own IT organizations, Ton said.

IT leaders need to tailor their message for each of the groups, he said. A CFO needs different information than a project manager, for example.

In addition, as technology -- both in terms of its possibilities and its problems -- takes center stage, IT leaders do as well. And they need to be articulate from that spot.

For example, boards of directors are increasingly asking CIOs to discuss cybersecurity and hear from IT leaders that preventing, detecting and responding to cyberattacks is a top priority, he said.

"[You're] informing them of where the threats are coming from, and what you're doing to keep on top of those threats," he said.

In some cases, a board may also want to know how much IT is spending on cybersecurity to protect the organization. Nitty-gritty tech speak, however, is less effective during these meetings.

Instead, knowing how to simplify technical concepts and speak in a listener-focused way is key.

Soft skills word map
Soft skills are critical for IT leadership success.

An ability to tell stories

Anyone who's watched a great TED Talk has likely noticed that the speaker began the talk with an anecdote. That's because throughout time, people have relied on stories to hook listeners, convey meaning and evoke emotion.

Good communicators are good storytellers, said Lou DiLorenzo, US CIO program leader at Deloitte, a professional services firm headquartered in New York. Good storytellers create an emotional connection with their audiences.

When crafting stories, IT leaders can ask themselves how to help people understand that IT has implications on their own success, he said.

Good stories resonate with people, which means that as with communication more generally, IT leaders need to understand their audience.

"If you're trying to make a connection with me, use words that are going to help me understand and make that connection more powerfully," DiLorenzo said. "Then we can all agree on what we're going to do next and why -- [this] helps drive that alignment [and] drive that vision, and it motivates people."

Becoming a good storyteller requires practice, DiLorenzo said. Here are a few ways IT leaders can gain get storytelling practice:

  • Accept invitations to speak at events or seek out such opportunities.
  • Take improv classes, which may help people sharpen their ability listen and respond.
  • Ask good storytellers for their tips and tricks.
  • Work with the corporate communications department to hone storytelling skills.
  • Watch TED Talks, and ask: How would I have delivered that presentation?

In addition, CIOs and other IT leaders shouldn't be shy about reaching out for coaching.

The corporate communications department works with other executives to improve their storytelling abilities, DiLorenzo said.

"Ask them for help," he said.

Empathy

To state the obvious, people skills focus on the human side of work. In other words, CIOs and other IT leaders must not only be able to understand technology, they also need the ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

Empathy plays a key role in an IT leader's ability to connect with colleagues and team members, said Fiona Mark, principal analyst at Forrester Research, a research and advisory firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. Being empathetic helps IT leaders predict how people will feel when faced with certain situations.

"That creates a much stronger ability to connect with people and create stronger relations with them," Mark said.

This is especially important when IT leaders are attempting to drive change, she said.

Empathy goes a long way in spotlighting why change management is so important to facilitating project success and overcoming the resistance that can sink the best plans.

Curiosity

The hunger to learn and understand new areas is a critical quality for any IT leader.

Curiosity has become more important as organizations have had to make major changes and pivots to deal with disruptions. From supply chain disruptions to workplace disruptions, IT leaders need to have an interest in what processes are working and what they must change.

Curiosity is important in human relations as well, since curiosity drives other qualities such as empathy, Mark said.

Ability to promote collaboration

Good collaboration goes beyond settling on a technology platform, Ton said. Like good communication, effective collaboration involves a willingness to gain an understanding of the roles one's colleagues are responsible for fulfilling, and the pain points they regularly deal with.

Ton recounts that in a previous role as the CIO for a large retail organization, he occasionally went with the senior vice president of retail when the latter was conducting individual store visits. This enabled Ton to see the store locations through the SVP's eyes, learn what was important to him, as well as observe how employees and customers interacted with the stores' technology.

"[Those ride-alongs built] collaboration, because there was shared experience, and shared experiences build community," Ton said. He adds that promoting collaboration through shared experiences help teams work well together when things are good, but also when the going gets tough.

Ability to build trust

IT leaders need to earn the trust of their team members, peers and executive management. Employees should feel confident that their leaders are looking out for their team and that they can depend on them.

Engendering trust largely comes from transparency, following through on promises and consistency, Mark said. IT leaders must know how to wield this trust judiciously, such as when they're leading change.

"When you ask people to follow you when they might not be ready to, [you're] using the trust you've built with the organization, or with [an individual]," she said.

Vulnerability

One important people skill aligned with building trust is the willingness to be vulnerable in one's communications.

Appropriate vulnerability encourages connection, Mark said. A leader's team is more likely to empathize with them and accompany them on the collective journey.

For example, an IT leader might admit a previous failure, she said.

"They could say, 'I made this mistake. I learned from it, and this is why we're going [in this new direction,]'" Mark said.

IT leaders could use this type of vulnerability to help their teams understand the need for change, versus simply issuing directives without explaining the reasons behind them, she said.

"You take people on that emotional journey that allows you to open up -- on your own terms -- and that allows people to see more of you, and therefore trust you, and therefore be inspired to follow you," Mark said.

Ability to promote inclusion

Inclusive should be an adjective that workers can use to describe their workplace, and leaders are critical in making that a reality.

CIOs and other IT leaders -- as with all leaders -- have a duty to promote an inclusive work environment, Ton said. Listening is a key component of promoting inclusion.

"Pay attention to who's talking in meetings, and make sure that every voice is being heard," Ton said.

IT leaders should call on those who aren't speaking up or any otherwise marginalized groups, and ensure that others listening to them, he said.

If, for example, a woman proposes an idea that falls flat, only for the same idea to be accepted 10 minutes later when presented by a man, the onus is on the IT leader to call out that the female team member just said that same idea.

Future-thinking

Innovation is a requirement for all leaders as companies must weather constant change.

CIOs should take a lead role in innovation within their organizations, said Andrew Laudato, chief operating officer at The Vitamin Shoppe, a retailer headquartered in Secaucus, N.J.

This involves staying abreast of industry developments, as well as market, tech and consumer trends, Laudato said. For example, CIOs and IT leaders should understand what the metaverse means.

"It's my job to learn that a few steps ahead of the team -- and read the articles, go to the seminars and talk to people and learn what's coming so that when [the metaverse] gets asked about, I can speak intelligently."

Bringing these ideas forward to the C-suite is an important part of the CIO role, he said.

Ability to motivate people

Motivating people to be excited about their work requires IT leaders to understand what drives different personality types.

People are motivated by different things and leaders should have an understanding of what those motivators are, said R. "Ray" Wang, principal analyst and founder of Constellation Research, a technology research and advisory firm based in Monte Vista, Calif. Here is a partial list of motivators he lists:

  • praise and adulation;
  • the opportunity to be part of a winning team;
  • managing others;
  • the chance to solve complex problems;
  • orchestrating and executing projects;
  • sharing;
  • teaching; and
  • exploring.

Administering personality tests may be a component of understanding what motivates others or improving the ability to do so, though due diligence to understand results correctly is critical, Wang said.

Making a commitment to understanding people is one of the most valuable time investments an IT leader can make, Wang said.

"If you understand people and you can engender trust, you can get a lot done," he said. "If you lead by example and you show people what you're trying to accomplish -- and they see the purpose and the mission behind it -- people usually jump in."

About the author
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer and editor living in Paris. She covers multiple facets of technology and business.

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