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7 traits of indispensable IT leaders

Irreplaceable IT leaders share several common characteristics. Acquiring these traits can put you on the fast track to long-term career success.

By John Edwards, Contributing writer, CIO

April 11, 2022 executive superimposed on buildings leadershipGetty Images

There’s no better type of job security than indispensability. Once an IT leader is regarded as essential by his or her employer, recognition rises, colleagues begin listening, project doors swing open, and salaries and benefits skyrocket.

Achieving indispensability isn’t as challenging as it may sound. It can be easily acquired by embracing several common traits that have been proven to transform mere mortals into IT heroes. Read on, to begin your journey to indispensability.

1. Inquisitiveness

For any IT leader, advanced technical skills and market awareness are table stakes. But when an IT leader can also serve as an insightful business advisor, capable of showing how technology can be wielded competitively, that individual immediately becomes a highly effective business partner, says Abha Dogra, CIO of Schneider Electric’s North American division. The IT leader’s view of a problem is through a technology lens, which can complement the business organization’s outlook very nicely, she adds.

IT leaders must follow a continuous journey toward effective outcomes. They also need to adjust their skills to meet stakeholders’ needs for a symbiotic partnership, Dogra notes. “Technology, like business, is always changing, and a successful leader must similarly evolve to support their business.

While business savvy may come naturally to some IT pros, it’s also possible to evolve into a more effective leader by learning how to become more inquisitive. “Leaders can choose to ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes/no response,” Dogra says. “Becoming more inquisitive in how we approach our conversations with stakeholders takes time and a lot of intentional practice. If we are to become more successful in tapping into the knowledge, skills, and insights of others for a better business, we need to make an intentional effort to make inquisitiveness a foundational stone in our leadership.”

2. Vision

CIOs can generally nail down the basic elements of their job, such as governance and policy responsibilities, relatively quickly. They can also rely on a strong deputy to assist with people management and organizational leadership. Yet one attribute that can’t be successfully developed on the fly is innovation and a curious spirit, says Chris Mattmann, chief technology and innovation officer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

An indispensable leader is forward-looking, eager to evaluate technologies that can be deployed today, innovations that may be ready in a few years, and systems that should be piloted and tested. “CIOs that aren’t embracing, testing, retooling, leveraging, and getting feedback from innovative concepts are putting their companies and businesses at risk of being left behind,” Mattmann warns.

Mattmann suggests taking an aggressive approach to technology exploration and adoption. “Curate technology trends, invest in them, experiment with them, then partner with external industry and advance them for the business,” he advises. The long-term reward will be lower IT costs, a path to automation, less repetitive work, and a happier workforce that enjoys travelling at the cutting edge.

3. Humility

Insight and vision are important traits, but humility separates indispensable IT pros from average leaders. “Humility is non-negotiable,” says Jon Waldon, CTO of robotic process automation software developer Blue Prism. “A humble IT leader can support and inspire their team to find meaningful solutions to the challenges their organization face.”

A humble IT pro tends to trust and value employee contributions. “Trust is reciprocal; when you trust your employees, they trust you,” Waldon says. A trusted leader is likely to become a go-to mentor who supports an effective team. Effective teams get reliable results, and effective leaders who trust and are trusted are indispensable.

Humility is best found in failure, Waldon says. Embracing the lessons learned from failures can help you tap into your humility. “Reflecting on your failures at various stages of your career will help you better understand what your team may be going through and how you can better support and enable them to be resourceful, resilient, and curious as they work to solve problems,” he explains.

4. Unifier

Until recently, it was important for the CIO to be the smartest person in the room. Yet those days vanished years ago. IT leaders must now be team players. “CIOs today have a seat at the table because business and technology strategy are forever entwined,” says Jay Upchurch, CIO at analytics software developer SAS.

Upchurch views himself as “the glue guy.” “In sports, the glue guy makes everybody else on the team better, and that leads to success,” he notes.

If IT leadership is the glue that binds enterprise teams together, an effective CIO must be able to collaborate across different audiences. “When you’re on a high-performing team and you stop to ask why you’re successful, you come to appreciate the value of collaboration,” Upchurch says. “Whether it’s customers, business partners, or vendors, collaboration is a trait that always breeds success.”

5. Inconspicuousness

Indispensable IT leaders surround themselves with first-rate talent and then get out of the way so team members can do their jobs unencumbered by excessive oversight. Scott duFour, global CIO at fuel card and workforce payment products and services firm FleetCor Technologies, says he follows the employment approach embraced by Steve Jobs. “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do,” deFour states. “Hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Inconspicuousness doesn’t mean adopting a completely hands-off management approach. “Great managers are trainers, mentors, and servant leaders who know what their teams are capable of and empower them to innovate,” duFour explains. “They provide input and counsel when appropriate; they celebrate their employees’ successes and encourage them to learn from their failures.”

Indispensable IT leaders have complete trust in their employees’ abilities. “When lacking certain capabilities, they persuade their team members to invest in themselves through more training, education, or certifications, whichever is the most appropriate,” duFour says.

6. Optimism

In a world dominated by pessimism and disruption, indispensable IT leaders generate relentless optimism and success. “Now, more than ever, leaders must be the catalyst for instilling the belief that there is something better,” says Carrie Rasmussen, CIO at human resources software and services company Ceridian. “By helping to navigate people through times of uncertainty, leaders must put relentless optimism into practice.”

Rasmussen believes that being optimistic is an integral part of living a purpose-driven life. “When leaders communicate their purpose with genuine authenticity, employees will recognize their commitment and buy into the cause,” she explains. “It will reshape the culture of the company and change how people solve problems together.”

Although a powerful tool, optimism is pointless unless the leader regularly connects with his or her staff. “The virtual workforce has changed how we engage with our teams,” Rasmussen observes. Many leaders, for example, no longer schedule regular office meetings, opting instead to chat with team members via videoconferencing. This approach can actually provide a unique ice-breaking opportunity. “We often get a glimpse of a family member, or pet, which sparks a personal dialogue,” she says.

7. Empathy

Empathy shows team members that their leader has interests that extend beyond mission-related tasks to include supporting the people charged with fulfilling the department’s goals. “It’s what convinces employees that the individual they report to really cares about them,” says Sam Mourad, CIO at IT products and services firm SHI International. “It’s the glue that holds teams together, and employees to their roles and their employers.”

There are many ways an IT leader can show empathy. “A good start is recognizing that being human is good for business,” says Heather Marasse, a partner at management consulting firm Trilogy Effect. She also suggests setting aside time to bond with team members. “Time spent on making human connections saves time lost on unnecessary conflict and communication breakdowns later,” Marasse notes.

Empathy should guide all aspects of leadership, particularly when crucial, and sometimes difficult, discussions are required. It’s especially indispensable for department heads responsible for driving innovation, Marasse says. “We’ve worked with many IT leaders who have found that by demonstrating respect and appreciation for peoples’ contributions, their teams have grown stronger, closer, and more trusting,” she says. “Forging strong connections forms the basis for creativity, innovation, and new opportunities for business growth.”

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