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Leaders outside of IT
9 October 2014

Soft skills yield hard results

In a 2010 report by Gartner Inc. these five words—soft skills yield hard results— always explained why a project succeeded and the absence of those soft skills were the reason for failure.

The “soft” skills are the focus on leadership and people skills of the CIO.  For some time it is not just the technological know-how of the head of IT which are paramount.  In addition to leadership and team building, it is business nous, forward thinking and collaboration which form the CIO package.

An article by Martha Heller in the HBR Blog Network by Martha Heller in 2013 discusses the CIO paradox as a set of contradictions which lies at the heart of IT leadership.  “Be strategic and operational. Stay secure and boost innovation. Adopt emerging technologies, while weighed down by the past.”

Heller found those CIOs who are successful “all share a common set of practices, philosophies and approaches. We are in the midst of a computing renaissance, when all CIOs will need to raise their game and master this same set of practices. Herewith, three items that should have a permanent place on any CIO’s “breaking the paradox” checklist.

Sell the foundation.  Convincing their peers to invest in a major infrastructure upgrade which will take 12 months or more before delivering direct business benefits.  That without these infrastructure investments, they will be mortgaging their company’s future.  It gets down to good communication, identifying stakeholders – those with a real vested interest – keeping the information flowing and demonstrating via every possible means that the investment is about innovation and staying ahead of the competition.  What must also be clearly demonstrated are the consequences of not making the investment.

Grow blended executives.  Organisations which appoint executives with “two heads”, a head for business and a head for technology – and this may be an understanding of technology – are those which will perform at a high level.

This type of executive is however, still a rare breed, so it will be necessary, according to Heller, for organisations to “grow their own”.  Heller suggests developing a program that rotates IT people into business roles, and business people into IT.  But regardless of which approach companies take, they need to start now.  One strategy is to take the people and develop them into blended executives.  When you walk into a business unit meeting, and from the dialogue taking place, you cannot easily distinguish the IT person from anyone else, you know you are on the right track.

It is also up to the CIO to broaden their horizons, extend their reach into the organisation such as adding a business degree to their skill set.

CIOs need to be clear on what they and their teams can do really well and must reshape their boundaries to ensure flexibility and accountability are simultaneously maintained.

Reach beyond IT.  CIOs who are successful in running IT tend to develop expertise in important areas including project management, continuous improvement, people development and strategic planning.  These are no different to any other department in the organisation and have long been critical for success.  CIOs who want to be effective in the future will extend their leadership and expertise beyond the IT function and align IT with the organisation goals and vision because they know it is good for the company and they will not wait to be asked.

The Gartner report “The CIO edge : seven leadership skills you need to drive results by Graham Waller, George Hallenbeck, Karen Rubenstrunk emphasises the importance of being a leader and rates committing to being a leader first, with everything else coming second.   They also act collaboratively, embrace their softer side and forge the right relationships to drive the right results.

In addition to managing the technology as before, it may seem all these other responsibilities may be a stretch, an overload but to be effective as a CIO they are now necessary and the successful CIO will prioritize, delegate and influence to ensure their relevance and their future.