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The softer skills CIOs will need to adopt for the future

The world of work is changing and tech leaders must change their approaches to keep up

The COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly sped up digital transformation processes already underway across all kinds of companies in multiple industries, but it’s also delivering unforeseen changes in the way senior executives such as CIOs must act in their day-to-day roles.

Outdated boardroom and leadership styles are being stripped away amid the rise in remote working from home, and traditional and incumbent ways of doing things are fast being ripped up so businesses and their employees can survive, and hopefully still thrive, despite this uncertainty.

For the CIO of right now, and of tomorrow, this has signalled a major rethink on how to adapt their job description from a core focus on information technology and computer systems to also including a broader range of softer skills that can bring more humanity to their digitally-led enterprise responsibilities.

So what are these softer skills and how are things already changing? 

According to research for the Executive MBA Council (EMBAC) report A New Way of Learning and Working, employers are in agreement that new leadership models are emerging with stronger roots in emotional intelligence and agility as well as conscious, continuous learning.

Tim Sadler, CEO at security company Tessian, suggests empathy should be a top priority. Citing his company's own research on 2020's new hybrid working models, which showed a third of IT leaders are worried about their teams being stretched too far in terms of time and resource, he says: "CIOs need to be empathetic to the rising pressures that remote working arrangements have on IT teams in order to keep them motivated and retain talent.

"The good news is that a high percentage already demonstrate these soft skills; half ranked employee wellbeing as their top concern should workforces continue working remotely." 

CIOs must examine their own leadership style

Roy Aston, of Paysafe, is one CIO already reconsidering what the role means and he believes it’s now much more important to consider your "leadership shadow". 

He explains: "I have come to learn that your ability to influence and have impact as a leader is dependent on the relationships you have built with the people you work closely alongside. In our current remote working environment, this has meant I'm trying to be even more aware of my mood or how I come across in virtual meetings and the tone of my emails.

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"In this increasingly digital environment, it has become even more important not to hide behind a screen dealing with the transactional elements of the role, but to take time to interact (digitally), with a genuine authentic interest in people."

For Kais Bouchiba, global artificial intelligence and machine learning strategist at MSC Software, one key change for CIOs will be to enhance their listening skills. He says this will enable them to hear and recognise valuable input from the "new guard" of employees and use bottom-up knowledge in their strategy.

Bouchiba says: "This year has seen so much of the workforce working from home or furloughed, and many have taken this opportunity to educate themselves on tools like AI and digital twins, ensuring it is now more important than ever for CIOs to learn how to listen to their employees and take their new, diversified skills onboard.

"These younger professionals are coming into the industry with fresh perspectives and often superior experience in new approaches such as machine learning (ML) and data analytics, so to fully exploit the potential of these powerful tools it is imperative the C-suite gets everyone on board and contributing. This means focusing on interdisciplinary collaboration and bringing together a diversity of perspectives."

Eva Murray, tech evangelist at database company Exasol, believes storytelling could also become a key soft skill, due to the amount of data companies are set to produce – and analyse – through AI and machine learning

She says: "Data and analytics are now the centrepiece of every organisation. CIOs and CDOs must identify how data can help and demonstrate value quickly by becoming a storyteller to sell their insights internally. A story makes the benefits of data clear for those who may be turned off by hard statistics."

CIOs recognise the need for change

According to Lily Haake, head of CIO Practice at global technology recruiter Harvey Nash, CIOs are switching their focus. For the first time in the history of its CIO Survey with KMPG, "strong culture and leadership" was cited as the most important factor in attracting and retaining key technology talent by the 4,000+ people it spoke to. 

She says: "This is now even more important than 'good remuneration', which is remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising. CIOs now understand that having a strong employee value proposition is vital if they want an engaged, productive and creative workforce."

Haake suggests technology leaders must not neglect the sense of "belonging and purpose" needed in today's successful working environment, adding: "The credentials of a great CIO now go far beyond just a strong technical grounding and a few decades of leadership experience. The ownership of technology is becoming increasingly distributed throughout an organisation, so the CIO will need to work in partnership with their peers in marketing, finance and operations in order to get the best value from technology. Adaptability is also key in this new, fast-moving world – a strong CIO can fail fast and learn from their mistakes.

"Empathy and openness are critical, as well as an appreciation for diversity of thought. Data from this year's CIO Survey confirms more diverse tech teams outperform on a whole range of success measures, such as 'trust and collaboration' and 'ability to innovate'. CIOs who cultivate a truly diverse and inclusive organisation will find themselves ahead of the pack."

Such diversity of thought will rightly be crucial for those CIOs focused on rolling out AI and machine learning initiatives, in order to prevent inherent biases being programmed in.

But change only comes when there is a recognised desire for it and Cliff Green, director of consultancy firm Harmonic, believes being fully cognizant of the shift is everything.

He says: "The skills needed today are, in many ways, less rooted in the technical side of things. As the role of the CIO has expanded, from integration only to business enabler, so too have the skills required. Above all else, the CIO of today needs a total awareness of their business and the direction of that business, and not just a focus on their technological niche.

"If you combine project management skills with a great nose for business direction, you'll be a CIO that can effectively react to change and make sure your organisation is prepared for the future."

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