Actian Life

What Makes an Innovative IT Leader? These Are the Top Skills to Hone

Steve Padgett

November 28, 2022

Team chatting, reinforcing their listening and communication skills in a world of digital transformation

Technology leaders face a plethora of new challenges as they attempt to deliver novel solutions and adapt to change more quickly. Obstacles include budget cuts due to inflation, technical skills shortages, and repercussions from rushing recent technology adoption, which can lead to security gaps, compatibility issues, poor performance, and much more. However, IT leaders also find themselves in a unique position to meet business goals and drive value upstream through digital transformation and technology innovation.

IT leaders require a diverse skillset and background to fuel innovative thinking and solve complex business issues. For them, innovation is an inward process that begins with leaders with an innate ability to apply strategic and creative thinking.

There are many leadership qualities that help fuel innovation. The most effective leaders foster collaboration and a bias for action within their teams. They motivate employees to perform their best, encourage exploration of cutting-edge technology and help the organization continuously innovate, and evolve by introducing the necessary mechanisms to make that possible. To succeed, IT leaders need a combination of hard and soft skills – namely, technological and business management skills, the comfort of navigating ambiguity, along with strong communication and problem-solving abilities.

Start With a Foundation of Business and Technology Knowledge

CIOs and other IT leaders have moved away from being technology gatekeepers who enforce rules, and IT is no longer a one-stop shop for technology. Considering that technological advancements and innovation are crucial to a modern business’s strategic goals, IT leaders are becoming trusted advisors to executive leadership.

The changing role of IT leadership comes as no surprise given the rapid technological advancements in the past few years. Innovation and business goals are now inseparable. To bring an organization’s ideal technology vision to life, IT leaders must acquire a skillset that spans business management and technical insight. Background in only one or the other will not offer enough varied expertise to be an effective leader.

If you’re looking for executive leadership training, keep an eye out for university courses and programs, coaching workshops, online certification courses, and company training opportunities that will help you develop skills across technology and business.

Typically, the pathway to becoming a CIO begins on either the technology or business side, with most people adopting the other side, sometimes over the course of their careers. I started on the technology side, studying computer science, while an undergraduate, and then immediately earned a MBA to supplement that knowledge. I used formal education early on to develop both sides, and then made a point to grow those skills throughout my career, combining my technical knowledge with the business side through marketing and sales positions.

Perhaps you’ve focused on one side of the skillset spectrum for years and are hoping to develop abilities on the other side. Fortunately, it’s never too late to further your education. Start looking into options for an advanced degree or other certification that will allow you to round out your experience and map toward a leadership position.

Develop Your Soft Skills Through Listening and Communicating Well

Generally speaking, it’s common to find two “types” of individuals within the IT department: introverts who are excellent listeners, and extroverts, who are gifted in teaching and communicating. Both are highly valuable, and IT leaders need to develop abilities on both sides. If an IT professional embodies a combination of these traits altogether, that leader then becomes that much more valuable to any business.

The loudest or most talkative person in the room does not make a great leader. The leader can often be the opposite of this. The ability to clearly express ideas is important, but leaders should also be thoughtful listeners. Don’t listen just to perform the act of listening. Leaders listen to learn, understand, and hear what is really being communicated. You can absorb more and learn a great deal from colleagues and experts when you keep an open ear and mind. Listening well allows you to uncover important information that will later fuel innovation and drive decision making.

Listening to team members and encouraging their ideas shows that you value their opinions, allowing you to better support your staff and be a more dependable manager. Gaining a reputation as a good listener will also help encourage shy or nervous employees to speak up and share their ideas without you prompting them. This helps your staff grow personally while also allowing them to contribute to the overall success of the business.

The perfect complementary skill to listening is the ability to clearly communicate with others. Communication might not always be the first skill that comes to mind when thinking of IT management, but it is crucial when it comes to great leadership.

For example, recruiters and managers filling IT leadership positions should take note if candidates are sharing their knowledge. While interviewing a candidate, seek out displays of thought leadership and entrepreneurial thinking. A candidate might share blog posts highlighting their expertise on LinkedIn, a personal website, or an online column. Others may prefer participating in webinars, seminars, or company videos. Anything that displays proactive thought leadership and offers valuable lessons to readers or viewers speaks volumes about one’s credibility as a teacher and studied expert.

Leaders who can effectively communicate and share their knowledge are essential, as they are the most qualified to build up strong employees and encourage them in their career journeys. The best mentors know how to effectively communicate to create opportunities to advance employee skillsets, build stronger teams, and improve workplace relationships.

Matching technical and business management skills with the softer skills of listening and communicating well puts IT leaders on the best path to success and equips them with the ability to bring innovation to their businesses. Continuing to implement and grow these skillsets will allow you to advance in your career while encouraging employee growth and meeting your organization’s long-term goals.

Develop Your Skills at Actian

Interested in learning more about how you can further your career in technology? Visit our Careers webpage to view current open positions and discover more about our employee-first community values.

About Steve Padgett

Steve is Chief Information Officer for Actian world-wide, overseeing Information Technology, Facilities and Cloud Operations and Management. He has over 30 years experience in Information Technology Management. Prior to Actian Steve was CIO for Pervasive Software, which was acquired by Actian. Prior to that, he held CIO/CTO positions at Supportkids and Tivoli and was a senior IT director at Dell. Steve has an MBA in Information Systems Management and a BS in Communications from the University of Texas at Austin.