Leadership is often as difficult to define as it is essential for success. There are countless books, speeches, and symposiums on the subject, and good leadership as an ability captures attention wherever it exists. It is usually easy to identify good leaders – whether in business or elsewhere – but often much more difficult to analyze and define the traits that lead to their success. In other words, laying down a blueprint for good leadership is inherently difficult.
Within the world of technology, good leadership is especially essential. While CIOs and CTOs often possess significant technical skills and knowledge that may set them apart from their peers in lines of business, a close examination reveals that these individuals focus just as much on leading their teams as any other business figure. The individuals who interviewed with the National CIO Review spoke to these qualities, and it’s clear that the best CIOs and CTOs bring much more to their organizations than raw technical expertise.
There are many leadership qualities that (while not inherently exclusive to the technology realm) are particularly valuable to CIOs and CTOs as they direct their teams. Among these traits, the ability to prioritize goals, develop talent internally and manage risks intelligently help the top leaders stand out. From deciding which objectives to chase to motivating team members to achieve more than ever before, these traits and abilities identify some of the top technology leaders across a variety of industries. It may be impossible to make an all-encompassing list of the most important traits for CIOs and CTOs, but these three qualities represent a good starting point for identifying strong leadership.
Prioritizing goals is a key skill for many leaders, but the wide variety of potential objectives and applications in IT functions make it especially important for the technology sector. We wrote recently about how CIOs and CTOs approach the issue of security, but there are many other tasks that they plan for as well. Even though these leaders could conceivably spend every working moment shoring up defenses against attacks, this objective constitutes only one part of their job. From designing and implementing new systems to hiring new talent, technology executives face a variety of other goals that are also vitally important. With these objectives in mind, it’s critically important for CIOs and CTOs to decide which goals deserve the most attention and in which order they will approach each one.
For technology leaders, the first step in prioritization is identifying which IT processes are most essential to business success. Many important goals are often complex, and also demand long-term plans to drive meaningful change. Jody Eddy, CIO for Boston Scientific, told us about some of her most important objectives when she spoke with the National CIO Review earlier this year. She told us that “We are in process of overhauling the IT structure, legacy systems, and transitioning from simply being order takers to being recognized as trusted partners and a competitive advantage to Boston Scientific.” Eddy’s example is just one of many, but it’s clear that she started with the most central concern (developing the IT team into a business partner) and then moved into more ambitious goals to better prepare her organization for the future.
Another, less obvious part of prioritization is deciding which active goals should receive the most consideration. Even within goals that technology leaders decide to pursue first, some objectives are more important than others and it’s important to delegate resources and time appropriately. Kevin Neifert argued for this type of prioritization in an interview for the Enterprisers Project. He claimed, “When IT tries to get an A in everything, it means we’re not focused on things that align with our company’s most critical business goals.” Neifert’s analysis is sound – IT teams often must complete more tasks than they have the resources for, even after narrowing lists substantially. In many cases, some goals can survive with minimal time and resource investment, an acceptable outcome if leaders complete their critical objectives.
Development and Culture
We have written before about how developing IT talent internally can help with hiring concerns, but mentoring team members and fostering an environment of learning can pay dividends in terms of week-to-week performance as well. Many of the CIOs and CTOs who have interviewed with the National CIO Review spoke on the importance of helping employees develop over time, and there is a great deal of additional evidence to support this practice. Team members who feel empowered will produce better work, and IT leaders who work to cultivate strong environments that foster growth and evolution over time will be able to accomplish more tasks and take on broader objectives.
Given the low levels of employment across the economy generally – and within technology specifically – developing the skills of current employees is a necessity. A talent shortage is a significant bottleneck for success, one that technology leaders are already addressing. Training programs, working with local universities and rewarding internal innovation are all good ideas, and we have seen many leaders use these resources already.
Developing talent internally can yield benefits beyond just employment. Companies who build cultures of collaboration and teamwork enjoy better culture and production, especially since employees tend to perform better at jobs they know and understand well. Eddy also told us that “We are very fortunate to have created a strong culture here as the majority of our employees have been with us for many years. It is about culture and mission – Boston Scientific offers the best of both, and we work every day to keep it so.” Eddy’s words showcase the importance of building a desirable work culture that helps people improve their skills over time and develop stronger teams.
Risk management is also a vital skill for technology leaders that enables transformational change and drives the best business results. Many technology leaders argue that CIOs and CTOs should be willing to take risks as part of their jobs. This advice doesn’t mean that executives should always ignore conventional wisdom or purposefully waste time or resources, though. Rather, it means that leaders must always be willing to look for new innovations or solutions, even if these measures bring initial uncertainty about outcomes.
Deciding which risks to take is one of the most important parts of a CIO’s job. It’s difficult to define which risks are always worth pursuing from a high-level perspective, since so much of every calculation depends on specific factors like industry, timing or cost. Just like many parts of technology jobs that vary based on details though, there are some leadership principles that apply to many situations. Sanjib Sahoo wrote about some of these factors for the Enterprisers Project, claiming, “Risk-taking behavior implies some calculated measurements - that you understand the market, and that you have some confidence that your strategy will enable the business to grow forward.” As long as leaders do so for the right reasons, willingness to take a calculated risk is an important leadership quality.
Given the pressure to innovate and the pace of change for technology, IT leaders face a unique pressure to take calculated risks. When new platforms and software emerge, for example, they represent significant opportunities to improve business functions. If these measures don’t work though, the wasted time and resources create setbacks that can potentially harm both business functions and relationships between IT and the rest of an organization. While the high stakes involved may make leaders less likely to pursue a risky strategy, the potential benefits from these changes demand that leaders take on at least some risk at times.
After evaluating different parts of good leadership, it’s important to remember that there are many approaches that leaders can take. Although nearly everyone in IT would agree that leadership is vitally important, opinions on the exact ingredients to this outcome vary greatly. In addition, specific situations demand different approaches, and someone who is a good leader in one setting might struggle in another. Even if leadership is universally important, it’s still challenging to define.
From a high-level perspective though, there are some clear guidelines that leaders can follow when drafting goals and objectives for their IT teams. By prioritizing resources and time, leaders can make sure that they always accomplish the most important parts of their jobs. Prioritization means more than just picking items and making a list – it also means narrowing objectives even further to decide what is worthy of maximum time and effort. In addition, fostering an environment of development and collaboration allows leaders to achieve the best results from their teams. Finally, taking calculated risks – for the right reasons and in the right way – is an invaluable part of good leadership as well.
No leader is perfect, and no team can avoid mistakes all the time. However, we have talked to many industry leaders at the National CIO Review and seen many individuals find success with the strategies outlined above. The best leaders always adjust and calibrate for their specific jobs and industries, but these traits and abilities also show some of the best ways that technology leaders direct their teams.