Beyond innovation: Cross-functional skills for IT leaders

Beyond innovation: Cross-functional skills for IT leaders
Steve Padgett

Innovation is a key quality for business leaders, especially within IT. It is an inward process that involves listening to others and pooling information to develop creative and strategic decisions. Innovation fuels and strengthens business efforts and impacts an organization’s growth strategy and is also a top priority for many businesses as they revamp digital transformation efforts.

While the ability to innovate is heavily sought after in the IT world, several crucial characteristics help form an excellent leader. Many of these qualities support the broader concept of innovation and help fuel great ideas across the team, allowing IT leaders to inspire employees better and achieve company goals.

Being an IT leader today requires a dual combination of hard and soft skills: the ability to bridge the technical/management divide and effectively listen to and communicate with others.

The basics: business and technology

Today, technological advancements and innovation are woven into businesses’ overall goals, shifting the role of CIOs and IT leaders to focus on presenting greater strategic counsel than in the past. IT leaders today need to account for a skillset that spans both business management and technical insight.

[ Also read 4 reasons to invest in leadership training for everyone. ]

CIOs especially need a deep understanding of both areas, as they help set the company strategy alongside the C suite while guiding the overall priorities of the IT department. In fact, according to a recent report by Snow Software, 90% of IT leaders say they are now viewed as trusted advisors to the business instead of a one-stop-shop for technology.

This is no surprise, considering the rapid technological advancements made in the past few decades, let alone the past two years. Business and technological innovation go hand-in-hand, and IT leaders must develop the cross-functional skills to manage both and bring an organization’s vision to life.

No matter your current role, consider supplementing your present specialty with educational opportunities that develop a strong hybrid skillset (an online certification course, coaching workshops, and coding boot camps are some examples). It’s common for CIOs to start their careers either on the tech or business side of the house and adopt the other throughout their career.

I began on the tech side, focusing on computer science during my undergraduate degree and then immediately supplementing that knowledge with an MBA. I acquired these skills early on through formal education, then worked to demonstrate both sides throughout my career, weaving in technical knowledge to other areas like sales and marketing.

However, it’s never too late to further your education. If you’ve focused on one end of the skillset spectrum, research your options for an advanced degree or other education on the other side to round out your experience and set yourself on the path to a higher role.

Key soft skills: The importance of being a good listener and clear communicator

Generally, there are two “types” of IT folks: introverts, who excel at listening to others; and extroverts, who are effective communicators and teachers. Neither should be taken for granted, and those in leadership must possess skills on both sides.

People often think that those who voice their thoughts first at meetings are unafraid to bring their ideas to the table and are the ones who will become company leaders. While clearly expressing ideas is important, leaders are also listeners. You do not need to be the loudest in the room. By keeping an open ear and mind, you allow yourself to learn better from colleagues and experts in your field. This will help you acquire important knowledge that will drive innovation and influence future decision-making.

By keeping an open ear and mind, you allow yourself to learn better from colleagues and experts in your field.

Listening well is also an essential skill for all leaders, not just those in IT. Leaders with this ability can more easily display that they value others’ opinions, making them more relatable and dependable managers or co-workers. Listening to and encouraging ideas from team members also allows leaders to support and elevate others. When those in leadership positions show interest in what teammates share and offer them more chances to speak, it can uncover good ideas from shy or nervous employees who might not have offered their thoughts without being prompted. This contributes to the overall success of the business and a greater sense of collaborative teamwork.

Complementary to listening well is teaching and mentoring others through clear communication. When recruiters and managers are considering candidates for IT leadership roles, they usually look for those who are already effectively sharing their knowledge with others.

For example, if I’m reviewing a qualified candidate, I look for a sense of entrepreneurial thinking through general displays of thought leadership. Do they write regularly on data storage and analysis? Perhaps they have an online column on AI and machine learning or share blog posts on LinkedIn or their website. One might prefer verbally sharing their expertise by participating in seminars, webinars, or company videos. Typically, recruiters keep an eye out for anything that shows proactive, outward displays of expertise that offer value to learners. This speaks volumes about their credibility in their field and as a teacher.

These skills in a leader also help develop employees and further their career journeys. Creating space for mentorship, whether formally or informally, helps build stronger teams, creates opportunities for up-leveling employees, and improves workplace relationships and overall company culture.

Mastering the ability to combine your technical and business management skills, along with softer skills such as teaching and listening, will set up IT leaders for success and enhance their ability to innovate within their organizations. By regularly demonstrating and continuing to uplevel these skills, you can set yourself on an upward trajectory while bringing value to your employees, refining your organization’s long-term goals, and positively impacting the business.

[ New research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services identifies four focus areas for CIOs as they seek more flexibility, resilience, and momentum for digital transformation. Download the report now. ]

The most successful IT leaders today are strong communicators as well as innovators. Here’s why a balance of soft and hard skills is essential

What to read next