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January 7, 2021

Winning attributes: A technology leadership checklist for 2021

IT is dead, long live technology? Leadership traits and CIO priorities for 2021 will be shaped by empathy, communication, the future of work, and a second wave of digital innovation.

By Edward Qualtrough

At the beginning of the 2020, before Covid-19 made digital transformation a primary concern for all business leaders, a McKinsey Digital report on the future of the CIO opened with an unnamed IT executive quipping: “There’s no worse time than now to be an average CIO.”

The remark neatly encompasses the recognition that, even then, a new incarnation of the C-Suite technology leader was required to advance organisations’ strategic agendas. The events of last year have only cemented that need. Covid-19 gave CIO and CTOs the chance to prove their worth and provided recognition, at last, of the strategic imperative for digital transformation.

But what are the traits and behaviours required of this new breed of technology leader? Here is a non-exhaustive checklist for technology leaders in 2021.

technology leadership

Honest and clear communication

While vaccinations are being rolled out, offering hope of a removal of restrictions to billions globally, the outlook is still one of overwhelming uncertainty.

In times of crisis, clear and honest communication becomes paramount, as Paul Coby, CIO of global chemicals company Johnson Matthey, explained at New Statesman Media Group’s CIO Town Hall Live forum in September 2020.

Coby speaks from experience: he had only just been appointed CIO at British Airways when the September 11 attacks took place in 2001.

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Last year, the pandemic required Johnson Matthey to take manufacturing plants offline and then get back up and running again, and to move thousands of staff to remote working, all while keeping some sites open to maintain a supply of crucial drug and medical supplies used by health services around the world.

Everybody’s worried, everybody’s under pressure – people are looking for leadership.
Paul Coby, CIO Johnson Matthey

“Industries and companies – and indeed crises – come in different shapes and sizes,” Coby said. “What we did in Johnson Matthey IT and more generally was to act fast, take decisions and save costs. That’s very much what I’ve done, when 9/11 came and when we had the financial services crises.”

Coby added that CIOs and all business leaders need to “communicate, communicate, communicate” to guide their groups through extraordinary situations.

“Everybody’s worried, everybody’s under pressure – people are looking for leadership,” he said. “That doesn’t mean leadership that pretends it knows all the answers. It’s important to be honest and really clear about the situation we are facing; it’s much worse not to talk about what’s going on.”

Empathy, sensitivity and emotional dexterity

Indeed, soft leadership skills will be in high demand in 2021. A recent study by analyst company Gartner predicted that, this year, “the majority of new CIO hiring processes will rank determination and sensitivity as critical personal characteristics”.

The 2020 Gartner CIO Emotional Intelligence Competencies Survey separated what the analyst house considered ‘above average’ and ‘below average’ CIO respondents. It found that ‘above average’ CIOs are more likely to engage in rewarding and developing others, mentoring and coaching, unscheduled and ad-hoc catch-ups over formal workshops and meetings, as well as practising gratitude and self-awareness.

CEOs are looking for executives who are capable of weathering crises.
Daniel Sanchez Reina, senior research director, Gartner

These personality traits will be in high demand this year, said Gartner senior research director Daniel Sanchez Reina. “CEOs are looking for executives who are capable of weathering crises. [They] are still unsettled about the future and want determined CIOs who make and implement timely decisions, while displaying emotional dexterity to be tactful and supportive.”

Partner with HR in shaping the future of work

In 2021, employers will lay the foundations for the next chapter in the evolution of work – with potentially far-reaching consequences. CIOs will have a strategic role in this, as technology is certain to enable whatever working practices their organisations chose to adopt.

But these decisions will affect the working lives of employees, and shouldn’t be considered purely ‘technology’ matters.

Speaking at New Statesman Media Group’s Virtual CIO Symposium in November 2020, Equinor CIO Åshild Hanne Larsen said CIOs needed to work with HR colleagues on future of work initiatives since so many aspects of business, government and society were now shaped by how we interact with technology.

“My observation is that the gap between IT, HR and other functions is really closing because data, technology and people are just becoming more integrated,” she said.

“Having experienced several of these areas it makes it easier to connect the dots and drive several aspects of the transformation journey, because technology choices always have an impact on people, how we work and how we live our lives.”

Be a diversity champion and ally

After the killing of George Floyd by US police, campaigning against racial injustice – specifically how it is experienced by black people – became another defining characteristic of 2020.

The arguments for developing diversity in technology functions were settled years ago. But despite some progress and initiatives focusing on gender and race, the representation of technology teams in the US and UK has remained stagnant.

This is not something that can be fixed overnight or by any single person. But IT leaders must listen to and empower technology talent from communities that have historically been excluded from opportunities in the sector.

It is now more appropriate than ever to call out discrimination, unconscious bias, the lack of gender and racial equality at technology conferences and in your company, and to stand up as a diversity ally in the technology sector while improving the performance of your organisation. Embed diversity and inclusivity in all aspects of the business and decision-making process, not as a bolt-on agenda, set of platitudes or one-day hackathon.

Lead the second wave of innovation

During an informal conversation at the end of 2020, one CIO suggested, half-seriously and with apologies for their choice words, that further lockdowns might facilitate a “second wave” of digital innovation.

The hypothesis ran that, while the first wave of lockdown placed upon business and society had accelerated what might loosely be described as a ‘digital transformation’, it was only really the easy stuff that has been delivered – the proverbial low-hanging fruit. There are further steps to be made in technology innovation, and another lockdown could focus minds.

Whether or not this proves to be the case, it is clear that the advances of 2020 are just the start of a longer transformation, and successful CIOs will build on the momentum of last year in 2021.

Time for a rebrand?

Is it time to rebrand the IT department? Chris Zissis, EMEA CIO at property management giant JLL, did exactly that, rechristening his division as the ‘technology’ function.

IT departments across the globe can and should be proud of the work they have delivered over several decades, but the phrase is the monkey on the back of the hard work and business innovation driving many organisations forwards well into the third decade of the 21st century.

Clearly 2020 was a watershed year on so many fronts. Rebranding ‘IT’, and shedding the negative connotations the term carries (fairly or otherwise), could help CIOs signal to their peers that the strategic status of their divisions is here to stay.

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