6 hot IT leadership trends — and 6 going cold

By: Paul Heltzel

IT leadership is changing nearly as rapidly as technology itself. Successful tech executives are shifting toward initiating strategic change rather than acting as trusted operators, as the CIO role sees greater emphasis on leadership skills related to digital transformation over keeping the lights on.

While the spectrum for IT leadership success remains wide, the rules of IT leadership are evolving rapidly, with many organizations seeking masters of digital strategies to helm their IT operations. Today’s IT leaders are being leaned on more for innovation and revenue generation, and to do so, most are shifting their approaches to IT leadership, broadening their influence and emphasizing organizational change.

We talked with IT execs and others about the future of IT leadership to find out which skills an strategies are on the rise — and which are waning.

Hot: Building high-performance teams

According to the 2018 Global CIO Survey from Deloitte, a majority of CIOs said that efficient team building was key in helping them succeed in their careers and would continue to be valued in the next few years.

“A company is one team,” says Alexander Rinke, CEO of business software maker Celonis. “Senior leadership should equip employees with intelligent technologies that power greater collaboration and transparency across the organization. It helps break down silos and drive company-wide digital transformation.”

Sten Tamkivi, chief product officer of mobile management firm Topia, advises looking to the “most disruptive” startups in your space to see how they’re navigating the future.

“Be open and adaptive to what the market does,” Tamkivi says. “You’ll be hiring younger staff with less experience, across domains, across industries. It can be uncomfortable, but necessary. Convincing your organization of the change that’s necessary takes skills drawn from your personal network building.”

But even teams that excel can turn into problems without proactive leadership, warns Charles Cagle, CTO for human capital management company Paycor.

“They cost more to acquire and deliver over-the-top results, but will dissolve quickly if not cared for with increasingly interesting and complex projects,” Cagle says. “They thrive on change, process improvement and delivering significant benefits to the business.”

Cold: Tech experts who aren’t influencers

Technical expertise alone, without the ability to detail a vision for the business, is a nonstarter for tech leaders who want to prompt change, says Rocky Subramanian, senior vice president and managing director of the Midwest region for SAP.

“Startup founders know this well,” Subramanian says. “Strong pitching skills are essential to gaining customers, funding and recruiting the best talent. VCs and angels invest in the potential of a team — not just the idea behind the startup. A team that works well together and communicates effectively is a better bet than a team that just has the technical qualifications.”

Hot: Bringing in perspectives from outside the organization

Drew Lydecker, president of financial technology company Avant, says he’s seeing more disruption than ever and it’s typically coming from previously unknown companies.

“More CIOs will need to embrace the trend of considering firms that aren’t household names,” Lydecker says. “Firms that can augment internal IT teams by accomplishing things they don’t always have the expertise or bandwidth to do. CIOs will need to open themselves up to new ways of thinking if they expect to keep up with the rate of change, and they can utilize the ‘trusted advisor’ community to do that — experts who are committed to bringing forth technology that can be game-changing for CIOs and their business needs.”

Cold: Risk aversion

Lydecker argues that new, disruptive technology can now perform in ways that traditional teams can’t, and the longer it takes CIOs to implement disruptive technology — or hire skilled external partners — the more likely they are to fail.

“CIOs used to be judged on mitigating risk for an organization and now their biggest risk is that they don’t innovate fast enough,” Lydecker says. “It’s tempting for CIOs to do what they’ve always done, but they can’t follow the same 10-year playbook if digital transformation is the goal.”

Hot: Continual learning

Deloitte’s CIO report found that tech leaders are also committed to ongoing learning, a trend that’s expected to continue over the next several years.

“Enterprise-wide technology literacy requires more than one-off water cooler conversations,” warns the report. “Well-structured education, communication, and engagement plan can help. While nearly all surveyed CIOs (96 percent) consider educating the business about technology issues to be one of their responsibilities, only 66 percent have developed proactive educational initiatives that reach beyond the executive level to help build tech fluency across the organization.”

And while tech literacy is increasingly valuable, simply translating jargon for the business side won’t do anymore, says Bill Mickow, CIO of educational media company Follett. “In today’s environment, the business is leading the conversation, asking to deploy machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation to improve business results. As CIO, we can no longer hide behind the complexities of the technologies. Our role is to lead in orchestrating efforts to leverage the services and capabilities available to us.”

Cold: An ‘all purpose’ mentality

Avant’s Lydecker says it’s no longer desirable for IT leaders to try to develop every solution that’s needed by the business.

“CIOs are looking to firms to augment IT teams,” Lydecker says. “They’re giving segments of their IT business to subject matter experts that can become part of their staff. It’s affordable and it fosters a highly efficient team.”

Hot: Seeking non-traditional hires

Deloitte managing director Kristi Lamar says she’s seeing a rise in firms hiring workers who don’t have technology backgrounds but are capable and willing to learn.

“We see in our clients — and within our own business — a change to the way we source candidates and the skills we’re looking for, because we have to ensure diversity of thinking and experience,” Lamar says. “The data ultimately shows diverse teams are more productive and see more success. That message has definitely reached the technology sector and is more important than ever.”

Avant’s Lydecker says he’s seeing the same thing. “Technology companies need to be able to make themselves look cool to attract talent from all walks of life,” Lydecker says. “I’ve learned that it’s critical to look outside of traditional hires. The best teams are able to learn and adapt, their energy’s at the highest level and they live for the kind of transformational changes that are made daily through IT. “

Cold: Emotional intelligence

One potentially surprising finding among CIOs surveyed in the report was that they considered emotional intelligence, as a leadership skill, to be less in demand in the next few years. Soft skills in IT are frequently mentioned in surveys of tech executives as in-demand and hard to find.

“Emotional intelligence doesn’t have to exist across the entire team,” says Doug Barbin, principal and cybersecurity practice leader of Schellman and Co., “if a leader has the ability to gauge their team and their goals, desires, and core personality traits through [behavioral assessment] tools like DISC,” which measures personality traits like dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness. “Being able to understand what drives the team — and how best to interact — goes toward the high-performance component.”

Hot: Delivering major organizational change

Karl Mosgofian, CIO of SaaS firm Gainsight, says he’s also seeing a shift in priorities from operations to strategy.

“Keeping the lights on is not enough,” Mosgofian says. “Enterprises look to IT to be an enabler and even driver of transformational change. That doesn’t mean that operational excellence is no longer important, but if IT isn’t fully engaged in digital transformation, they’ll be left in the dust. Many CIOs I talk to are not just encouraged, but expected, to bring new technology approaches to address the strategic imperatives of their companies.”

Cold: Being results-oriented

The Deloitte report also shows respondents see a priority shift from being results-oriented to driving transformational change.

“Being a results-oriented [CIO] is not the most significant focus right now,” Lamar says. “CIOs have to keep the trains running and make sure that they’re driving top-line growth and making sure that they’re being good stewards of their mandate. But really what they need to be mindful of is being conscious of driving transformational change, building and enabling their team to do that on a scalable and sustainable basis.”

Hot: Being a change agent

Delivering transformative change is a required skill for CIOs going forward, says Justin Newcom, vice president of fleet-management software maker Omnitracs.

“Evolving your technology organization to meet your revenue-generating business requests quickly and efficiently is the name of the game,” Newcom says. “We need to develop a deep network of talent that we can call upon depending on how our business needs evolve. As our business leaders venture into new areas of software development, or contemplates acquisition targets, a successful CIO can maneuver the technology organization to capitalize on those opportunities.”

Cold: Managing the store

Tech leaders without the ability to transcend their roles as trusted operators will see their stock drop, says Ryan Scott, CTO of advisory services firm DNA Behavior International.

“While people with implementation skills are necessary — the doers — they’re less valuable if they remain fixated on the tested ways,” Scott says. “Inherently, an implementer may not be as naturally flexible. Digital transformation requires a lot of strategic thinking and being able to see what is coming and being able to proactively get ahead of it.”

The C-suite increasingly looks to IT to innovate, says Jennifer Curry, senior vice president of global cloud services at data center services firm INAP. And what’s worked before may not cut it in the future.

“The routine, day-to-day work of maintaining IT systems — patching servers, identity and access control, resource monitoring — is getting in the way of the work that moves digital transformation forward,” Curry says. ”Those tasks are important, of course, and will remain so, but they have to be understood in terms of what they’re enabling the entire organization to do. And these ‘results-oriented’ tasks can’t take up all of IT’s time if they’re being done at the expense of activities that move the needle for digital transformation.”