How do you define great IT leadership?

What skills and traits do top tech leaders share?
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
businessman boardroom

FT CIO Christina Scott: "The CIO should have a seat on the board and should have as loud a voice as any other functional head in the organisation."

Image: iStock

Great IT leadership has never been more important. Every business benefits from having an executive who can make the most of technical advances, inspiring people within and outside the IT department.

It is a trend noted by Christina Scott, chief product and information officer at the Financial Times. "Technology has to be core to the modern business," she says. "The CIO should have a seat on the board and should have as loud a voice as any other functional head in the organisation."

Evidence suggests more IT leaders are making that transition to the top of the business. Rather than just taking responsibility for internal matters, smart CIOs engage with the rest of the business and lead their organisations into a brighter, technology-enabled future.

So how do you define great IT leadership? What characteristics and qualities mark out great leaders, and how can CIOs refine and develop their management expertise?

1. Make sure the business knows that your people are amazing

Chris Hewertson, CTO at hotel chain glh, says the key attribute of successful leaders is confidence in the people they manage. Modern CIOs are pulled in multiple directions and will be expected to spend more time on business concerns than IT operational issues.

"You must have utter trust in your team -- you can't do it all yourself," he says.

Hewertson says he is lucky enough to be able to call on a great team, yet he also recognises these people were not being used in the right way before he joined the firm in 2012. Hewertson has worked hard to push responsibility to his trusted deputies. All his direct reports have moved up a layer and taken on senior roles during his stewardship.

"My experience is that you should, in general, trust people. Give them the space and the back up to do the right things and people will excel. More importantly, support them when things go wrong -- don't just attack people," says Hewertson.

"Give your people exposure and let the rest of the organisation know who they are, but also protect them from the craziness of business. Your team is a reflection of you. If your team is amazing, then people will think you are, too."

2. Focus on honesty, pragmatism, and direction simultaneously

Doug May, regional IS manager at manufacturing specialist Messier-Dowty Limited, says three factors are crucial to great leadership: honesty, pragmatism, and a strong sense of direction. "You have to be pragmatic and able to bend in line with the changing objectives of the business," he says.

"More to the point, you can't lead anybody or anything if you're dishonest. And a great sense of direction is absolutely crucial -- you must know where you're going and what your department is trying to achieve on behalf of the business."

May says great leaders focus on honesty, pragmatism, and direction simultaneously. "Each day presents specific challenges," he says. "You have to be flexible. Everyone you encounter will have different emotions."

Great CIOs, he says, also need to have the confidence to let go, rather than believing they need to run every project. "You need to know the capabilities of your people and you need to trust them," he says. "I know that, if my people are struggling, they'll come and tell me."

3. Let the strengths of your team come to the fore

Andrew Marks, former CIO and now the UK and Ireland managing director for energy in Accenture Technology Strategy, says CIOs who are seen as holding a more intrinsic role in their organisations are typically excellent communicators, both inside and outside the technology department.

"Being recognised as the person that is going to drive innovation and help the company be more successful than it is today is a great way to show the important role you play," he says. While communication skills are crucial, great leaders do not necessarily have to assume the mantle of a spokesperson.

Marks, instead, advises CIOs to let their team's great work do the talking. "Whether you are seen as a critical part of the leadership team will be dependent on the abilities of your trusted people to deliver. And so establishing a well-managed and high-performing team is your best starting point," he says.

"Your results should speak for themselves. Personal knowledge and experience can be built over time. If you bring specific industry knowledge, actively engage with peers in their language to understand their business challenges, then you can be confident that you will be recognised as a critical part of your organisation's competitive advantage."

4. Use your skills to deliver great results in other sectors

Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, says a great leader is an individual who inspires, supports, mentors, nurtures, and leads from the front: "Somebody who is at home with their peers as well as those at every level of an organisation," he says.

The best leaders do not separate themselves too far from the front line. They understand and appreciate the attributes of the people they lead. Yet the bad news, says McMahon, is that truly great leaders are rare. "When pushed, everybody could easily name a list of bad leaders they've worked under," he says.

When asked to name a great leader, McMahon says most people are likely to refer to a public figure head -- such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates -- rather than an individual with whom they have had direct contact. Such high-profile examples help demonstrate how great leaders transcend their roles or even industries.

For IT leaders, the lesson is to use your skills to help deliver stunning results in other sectors and environments. "There is no shortcut to any senior role in a credible organisation," says McMahon. "It's key for the CIO to deliver, not just to their own strategic objectives, but to assist their peers to deliver their aims and to help the wider organisation exceed all of its corporate goals."

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