Storyteller, futurist, teamplayer, networker: The top four soft skills you need to master

Making an impact as a manager isn't just about qualifications. These traits will help you to the top.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
business hands team

Smart IT leaders are teamplayers who spend more and more time engaged with the rest of the business and working with external service partners.

Image: MICHAEL ZHANG, Getty Images/iStockphoto

In an era of almost constant change, it can be tricky to understand the key traits of great CIOs. But while technical skills may come into fashion -- and go out again just as quickly -- there are softer skills that, if mastered, can make a difference to the trajectory of a CIO's career.

Here are four characteristics that executives think can help make CIOs more effective.

1. Be able to tell a story with a happy ending for the business

Former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen says too many IT leaders still focus on metrics and key performance indicators. "They bring graphs and charts about the high level of system availability and have missed the point that very few executives around the board table actually care," he says.

Cohen says IT leaders who create a narrative based on how well they run and steer the ship are telling the wrong story. "Those are the 'givens'. Your story needs to be about where all this is going and how technology is enabling and advancing the digital future of the firm," he says.

CIOs need to find new and creative ways to engage with their colleagues. Cohen says IT leaders should look to bring the urgency and immediacy of the startup world into the boardroom and to challenge conventional wisdom.

"Your long-term goals are fast becoming your short-term targets and your short-term targets have become the opportunities and options from which you need to test, learn, and engage," he says.

2. Give up the day-to-day to future-gaze

Geert Ensing, former CIO at ABN Amro, now spends a great proportion of his time researching the role of the IT professional. "Technology is creating new opportunities for businesses and fast-moving firms can create a competitive advantage. There's no time to lose," he says.

There is, however, a tension in priorities, says Ensing: CIOs are under pressure to support the decisions the business wants to make, rather than to simply run an IT shop. Ensing says external experts can help. "CIOs must use service providers to help run day-to-day operations and find a way to come up with new opportunities," he says.

Evidence suggests smart IT leaders use external specialists to boost responsiveness. Three in ten (32 per cent of) CIOs are developing strategic partnerships to improve innovation outcomes, according to research from consultant KPMG and recruitment firm Harvey Nash.

Partnerships are crucial for First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins, who worked on the vendor side before moving into IT leadership roles. He says the experience makes him a better shopper. "It gives you a reference point," says Wilkins. "So when you see a demonstration, you know what people are trying to hide and you can probe into the areas that probably need a bit more work."

3. Be a teamplayer CIO who leads change on behalf of business peers

Smart IT leaders spend more time engaged with the rest of the business and working with external service partners. Yet Andrew Marks, former CIO and now UK and Ireland managing director at Accenture Technology Strategy, says not all CIOs have made the transition.

Marks still hears technology chiefs talk about the need for alignment between IT and the rest of the business. He thinks back to a workshop in the mid-1990s, where he remembers first hearing about the need for dedicated resources to work as a bridge between IT and the various lines of business in an organisation.

"More than twenty years on and it seems incredible that we're still talking about the need for alignment in such a stark way. It shouldn't be required. Any gaps by now should simply not exist," says Marks.

"The major change that has taken place in recent times is the broad recognition in boardrooms about the role technology plays in future success. CIOs now have a wonderful opportunity to drive change and innovation -- they don't have to just go to the CFO, cap in hand, ever year for cash."

4. Network to build influence and make projects happen

Jonathan Mitchell, former IT leader and now non-executive director at Harvey Nash, thinks back to his time as CIO at Rolls Royce and the firm's attempts to create a global supply-chain using a single instance of SAP. It was a rare project with lofty ambitions, yet the executive support for the initiative was a sign of the changing role that IT leaders would begin to fulfil.

"The most powerful position for a CIO to hold is to be able to push business transformation," says Mitchell. "Once an IT leader has backing for big-change projects -- as started to happen more and more at the turn of the millennium -- then large-scale investment in technology becomes credible. As a CIO, you start to be seen as someone on the board that can change the business for the better."

The people who are most influential as CIOs now have very different characteristics to those held by IT leaders 20 years ago. Modern CIOs, says Mitchell, have a much broader skills set and are less focused on technical aptitude. They have strong soft skills and are excellent at building relationships.

"The CIO role is moving away from its traditional foundation and towards being an agent of change for the business," says Mitchell. "CIOs are taking responsibility for broader process change across the organisation, rather than system implementation."

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