Chris Weston (Principal, European Client Advisory)
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

On August 5 the IDC Digital Leadership Community, comprising CIOs from across Europe, came together to discuss the subject of leadership and how they should build and lead high-performing teams.

How to Make Tech Managers Into Real Leaders

It’s one of the oldest problems in IT. Who manages tech teams? It’s a challenge because many techies have not always been encouraged to learn to deal with people and handle business issues, while many professional managers do not have the technical chops to understand the finer details of what IT teams are doing.

It’s a subject that framed an interesting discussion for the latest session in IDC’s Digital Leadership meetings: just how do IT managers acquire the leadership skills required in the modern world.

Guest speaker Matt Graham-Hyde, a former CIO who is now a management coach, set the scene. “We’ve moved from a simple world to a complex one, dealing with flatter organisations and blurring of responsibilities,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve seen a change of mindset within companies as technology has moved centre stage, with a growing acceptance that all business change is led by technology.”

With this emphasis on transformation, said Graham-Hyde, CIOs are now business development officers. “But they’re not often trained or skilled in leadership at any point in their careers,” he said. “What do they need to do?”

Flexibility

Graham-Hyde had a checklist of attributes that he expected CIOs to follow to be successful leaders. “They need to be comfortable in change and change management,” he said. “They need to be flexible; they can’t be fixed in one particular technology.”

Most of all, he said, there’s a need to be able to develop relationships with all the relevant people and collaborate more. He added that developing skills like this will help them much more in the future.

There was general agreement in the conference that Graham-Hyde had identified the problem. The trouble, said one speaker, is that it’s clear that these people are not being supported. There’s little or no development of them as managers, only a concentration on technical skills.

Another participant pointed out another fundamental problem: how do businesses identify the new tech leaders? Relying on technical ability doesn’t give the full picture and certainly won’t identify managers: are companies looking for the wrong characteristics?

Another speaker spoke of the feelings of being marginalised. “Business people don’t always understand how we can contribute,” he said.

Another guest speaker, James Maunder, CIO at The London Clinic, supported Graham-Hyde’s view that IT staff had to focus more on collaboration: “Leaders have to be curious, leaders need to have collaboration skills, a more agile leadership for a digital world.” He said the key aim is to foster a positive working atmosphere. “Leaders create the environment in which their people can work at their best,” he added.

There was much discussion about the climate in which tech teams operate. One speaker drew attention to the arrival of cloud and the fact that some IT teams could be sidelined. “AWS encourages some business leaders to ignore IT management,” they said.

Culture

Another participant pointed out that sometimes tech teams could be reluctant to identify when things are going wrong: “We have to get to a place where people can speak out if things aren’t right — there needs to be a culture of honesty.” And if there isn’t, said Maunder, they should feel able to walk away.

However, another participant pointed out that failure in a project isn’t always a bad thing. He said there could be a psychological safety net if there is a clear belief that failure is okay “… provided that you learn from that failure. This is not about having no fear of failure, but a recognition and confidence that failure is part of the creative process. When people are afraid they also lose any willingness of ownership … and that has sad consequences.”

Risk Taking

And there’s certainly an emphasis on playing safe. Companies are loath to take risks, particularly when we’re still recovering from the pandemic. As one participant put it, “The concern in this post-COVID world, however, is that every single creative and development action must be laser focused on a business objective and revenue. As a result, there is a tendency to focus on safe creative endeavours. While this is okay from a budgeting and short-term perspective, it can be stifling. Rather, a creative culture should be encouraged, consisting of smaller projects that result in quick successes or rapid and understandable failures.”

There’s certainly no reason to sideline tech professionals. As IDC’s Marc Dowd pointed out, “There’s been a shift towards making everyone digital natives — and that’s not just in IT.” Graham-Hyde explained that there were ways to get tech teams involved: “We teamed with HR people and worked out a plan for better skills without committing budgets, by running mini-seminars, for example.”

There certainly seems to be a greater effort to get IT teams involved in business decisions and a greater effort to give their leaders the skills they need. But is there a willingness among companies to do this? The evidence from this meeting is that it will take some time for this inevitable shift.

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