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Top 5 executive soft skills CIOs need to lead today

To help navigate through a crisis like the pandemic, IT executives are drawing on their leadership and interpersonal skills as much as -- if not more than -- their technical ones.

CIOs have experienced a significant change in what it takes to lead in 2020 and must now take novel approaches to engage their teams and colleagues, which in turn has shifted the types of skills needed.

CIOs first flexed their technical prowess as they enabled mass-scale work-from-home environments and spun up new tech offerings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But they quickly had to tap into their interpersonal skills and leadership abilities to manage a dispersed virtual workforce that's under tremendous pressure to deliver at a time of great uncertainty.

"Those skills were always important, but now there's a magnifying glass on them because the impact if you screw them up is bigger now than before," said leadership team coach Mike Goldman, author of Breakthrough Leadership Team.

Here's a look at the top five executive soft skills -- outside of the technical ones -- that CIOs need to lead now and for the foreseeable future.

1. Grace under pressure

The pressure to deliver flawless technology operations is as intense as ever, as most organizations shifted to widespread virtual engagement nearly overnight. But CIOs can't let that pressure get to them, said Hillary Ross, managing partner and leader of the IT practice at WittKieffer, an executive search firm.

Hillary Ross, managing partner and practice leader, WittKiefferHillary Ross

"A CIO now has to possess a sense of calm and steadiness as opposed to a sky-is-falling attitude," Ross said, stressing that CIOs need to model discipline and determination to keep teams moving forward and to minimize distracting fear and panic among employees.

Sean Wechter, CIO at Qlik, knows this firsthand, pointing out that workers are navigating the macro issues of the day, as well as the resulting smaller ones such as a delay in getting laptops to new employees due to shutdowns. "You have to able to calm things down on a lot of fronts so everyone can focus," he said.

Sean Wechter, CIO at Qlik, Sean Wechter

Wechter saw stress levels rise among employees, as the pandemic brought dramatic and significant changes to everyone's personal and professional lives. As a result, Wechter decided to have regular check-ins with the firm's IT workers.

"We know employees are dealing with stressors behind the scenes, like people with kids at home while trying to work, so we have calls to just make sure everything is OK," he said.

2. Empathy

Bruce Beam, CIO at (ISC)², a nonprofit organization specializing in training and certification for cybersecurity professionals, said he's had to adjust the boundaries of acceptable behaviors.

Bruce Beam, CIO at (ISC)²Bruce Beam

"We've had to step back and look at the norms. [For example,] you wouldn't normally have a baby in a Webex [video conference], but now it happens every now and then," he said. As a CIO, he's fine with that and believes other executives should develop a sincere empathy for the extraordinary circumstances that many employees are now in and accept some of the adjustments needed to get through the day.

"When you talk about the humanity skills, they're definitely getting much more of a workout today," Beam added. "And the people who aren't empathetic right now, they get a very stern eye."

3. Self-discipline

"You really need to be expert in managing and leading yourself," Goldman said. When it comes to executive soft skills, that can mean improving your focus and resisting distractions or getting better at determining what you can control and what you can't.

"Back in March when COVID-19 hit, it was craziness, and it was all about survival. Then we hit this weird time and settled in and realized we can be productive remotely," Goldman said. "But what I'm finding now is that it's come back, and people are sick and tired and not getting the energy of working with other people and they're stressed. As a leader, you have to deal with that overwhelming stress and be strong, and you can't be strong for other people if you yourself are not strong."

4. The ability to coach

CIOs must polish their coaching skills, as they're now leading virtual teams whose members are often firing on all cylinders in order to meet demands, according to Goldman. Moreover, CIOs need to understand that coaching isn't simply asking staff members whether they're getting their work done on time.

"That's holding someone accountable," Goldman said. Of course, CIOs need to hold their workers accountable, adjusting schedules and expectations as needed given the circumstances -- but they shouldn't think that's enough.

"What CIOs need to do is coach, show them you care [and] mentor. That's knowing how to listen and ask the right questions versus thinking you have to give the right advice," he explained. "Coaching should be about helping your people and challenging your people to get better every day, every week, every month, every year."

5. Being a visionary

Dan Roberts, CEO at Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc.Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts, CEO at Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc., has researched high-performing IT departments, identifying the 15 core characteristics they share. Of those 15 traits, only one was technical with the other 14 being leadership and business capabilities, including successfully leading change, influencing and effectively communicating. CIOs must continue to draw on all those executive soft skills today to create a vision for the future and execute against it.

"CIOs need to be vision-shapers, they need to be market-makers and they need to be talent developers," Roberts said. "We have to create and communicate a new narrative for our company, to take friction out of the customer experience, to drive new revenue [and] to find how to disrupt ourselves and our industry before it happens to us."

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