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Leadership / Workforce

How IT leaders can develop ‘people superpowers’

Guest author Kevin Antao, CIO at Amnesty International, shares his personal experience of how to develop and demonstrate highly effective people skills.

Modern IT leadership requires people superpowers. Managing yourself, your staff and your supporters requires IT leaders to play many different roles: trusted adviser, counsellor, and authentic empath. The pandemic and the fourth digital revolution have only added the need for IT leaders to demonstrate highly effective people skills.

In my experience, there are four areas that offer IT leaders the opportunity to hone these skills: inclusion and diversity; partnering with HR; personal authenticity and nurturing the resilience of your team. Focusing on these areas can help even the most technical IT leaders develop the empathy, relationships and authenticity they need. 

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Participating in special interest groups at work can help IT leaders develop authentic relationships with their peers. (Photo by alvarez/iStock)

Inclusion and diversity

The case for workplace diversity and inclusion is compelling across all industries and it is a good place to start for any IT leader seeking to hone their people skills.

But how? First, think about what these terms mean for your organisation. For me, Verna Myers’ often-quoted analogy sums up the difference best: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”. Modern IT leaders must balance their activities across both.

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A useful insight I once received from a colleague was that rebranding management terminology can help to highlight where you wish to apply your focus. For example, calling it OpsDev instead of DevOps shifts the focus onto operational outcomes. Same with the label ‘diversity and inclusion’ – you could re-cast it as “inclusion and diversity”, shifting the focus to acts of inclusion.

Effective anti-sexism and anti-racism measures require a deep consideration of people, culture, and systems, and how that work is conducted. At Amnesty, this led to a review of our recruitment software, after which we implemented measures to assess job descriptions and adverts for bias assessments. We have also considered tools to help us eliminate bias in all forms of writing, such as Textio, a plug-in for Word and emails.

Partnering with HR

The modern IT leader needs allies in the organisation, and a valuable partnership to foster is with the human resources department. The pandemic brought the HR-IT relationship into sharp focus: some have noted that, amid the shift to remote and hybrid working, the CHRO and CIO have emerged as a new “power couple”.

For technical IT leaders, leaning into ‘people’ spaces can feel unnatural.

But for technical IT leaders, leaning into ‘people’ spaces can feel unnatural. One experienced technical architect at a Big Tech company recently admitted the discomfort that he felt in articulating the human benefits that his software would deliver. The modern IT leader needs to break down these barriers, enabling and supporting technical IT resources to speak openly about these human benefits of technology.

Employee experience programmes are a good opportunity for IT leaders to partner with their HR colleagues. Most organisations are wrestling with improving the work experience, and the modern IT leader must land technology at the heart of this shift.

Amnesty is focussing on improvements in wellbeing, nurturing future leaders through management and development programmes, and shifting the culture to the new workplace reality.

The delivery of a new ERP solution (Dynamics365) to provide modern, intuitive, and digital HR staff experiences underpins these initiatives, as do our efforts to eliminate promote gender, racial and intersectional justice.

People skills for CIOs: personal authenticity

Leaders are often told to ‘bring their whole self’ and ‘be authentic’ in the workplace but exposing personal vulnerabilities and imperfections can be daunting. I’ve found there are some safe and effective ways that IT leaders can be authentic in a work setting, to the benefit of their working relationships.

One simple way is to find a cause or personal interest at work and getting involved. Special interest groups (SIG’s) within an organisation are a great way to do this. During the pandemic, I established an Amnesty Working Parents group, bringing mums, dads, and caregivers together every month for support, discussion, and action. The aim is to embed family friendliness more firmly into our organisation.

This has been a test of my authenticity for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve had to attend the SIG in my real primary role, that of being a father. And secondly, despite being the organisation’s IT champion, I have advocated against the prevalence of technology in our lives and promoted the “right to disconnect”. (That said, technology solutions such as MS Analytics or Viva can help to protect downtime, maintain well-being, and enhance productivity).

Participating in this debate openly has helped develop my relationships with colleagues and enabled me to be more authentic at work.

The superpowers of a resilient team

Any IT leader’s greatest asset is their team. At Amnesty, my team has been through more than most – staff suicide, financial crisis, dramatic leadership change, well-being crisis, the occupation of our offices by protesters, hostile international government attacks, raids leading to the closure of premises and operations, service desk tickets on life and death matters, kidnap, racism, and emotional outbursts.

Faced with environments as brutally demanding as this, IT leaders must avoid the ‘loneliness of leadership’.

Faced with environments as brutally demanding as this, IT leaders must avoid the ‘loneliness of leadership’. Help is out there, even in the not-for-profit sector where funds for advice and assistance are not as readily available. At Amnesty, appointing a volunteer non-executive director (NED) for IT and using the services of a specialist IT career coach have proved to be simple, cost-effective, and high impact measures.

Burn-out is commonplace in IT, but it can be managed with meaningful, IT-specific mentoring conversations on well-being and development. External facilitators also help to unbuckle difficult and painful conversations on the topics of racism and gender equality. And for us, co-creating our future digital workplace with the team has brought human conversations to the fore, validating and giving meaning to our previous work on cloud, device management, and enterprise software implementation.

My solidarity goes out to all the modern IT leaders that are boldly prioritising their humanity. They say ‘people, process and platforms’, but people must always be put first.

Kevin Antao is chief information officer at human rights campaign group Amnesty International.