ICS news & events, February 2020

Irish Computer Society

Conference provides a guide to better IT leadership



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18 February 2020 | 0

‘Leaders in the digital age empower others to lead’ – how to be a better IT leader

At the recent Irish Computer Society Leaders’ Conference, Irish-based CIOs were asked to give their thoughts on the challenges of leadership in the digital age. Facilitated by TechPro editor Paul Hearns, here’s what they had to say.

Real leadership relies on participation, involvement and contribution from everyone. Effective IT leaders understand stakeholders’ needs and use strong interpersonal skills to engage with them in order to deliver on strategies that meet short-term business goals and long-term IT goals.

An IT leader has to be able to both stay on top of the latest technologies and governance standards (through CPD activities and professional member networks) and also step out of the ‘IT bubble’ to see the organisation’s big picture.




Most IT leaders grow into the role, struggling but ultimately overcoming leadership challenges early in their career. A sink or swim approach still seems to prevail for new managers and lack of support after a failure means there are high attrition rates as a result.

For many the ‘only way to get promoted is to voluntarily take on management responsibility’, often without adequate preparation or training. Soft-skills are mostly self-taught but it’s these soft-skills that are becoming increasingly valuable to leaders in the digital age.

Fostering collaboration and encouraging innovation are now the prized skills of effective leaders who no longer lead from the front, or from the top of a fixed hierarchical structure. Leaders in the digital age empower others to lead by creating self-organised teams that can optimise their own day-to-day operations.

IT faces all the traditional leadership challenges but arguably at an accelerated pace to the rest of the business. It seems that IT leaders are constantly managing a balance between ‘keeping the lights on’ and ‘disrupting the business model’, attempting to show a way forward through change, disruption and unpredictability.

For many, managing continuous change is something the IT leader must accept as the ‘natural’ state for IT. One of the biggest challenges for new leaders in particular is learning how to say ‘no’. Many who reluctantly say ‘yes’ then struggle to convey energy and enthusiasm for projects or find themselves managing over-delivery/over-engineering while trying not to dampen team spirit.

If we are to embrace this future of IT, then the chances are IT leaders and their teams are going to need help in a few key areas:

Managing business demands and prioritising value

• Assert your role in the C-suite to be part of strategic decision making and push for sharing the responsibility for IT governance (data protection, ethics, ISO etc.)
• Close the IT/business divide by including IT earlier in project planning and tendering.
• Ask for IT representation on project boards to help manage expectations around deliverables.
• Use evidence-based projections reflecting the time/scope/resources available.
• Tackle legacy under-investment by persuading the business that stability of systems protect business reputation and customer satisfaction.
• Learn how to say no – to your team, the C-suite and other stakeholders.

Becoming customer-focused

• Recognise that the IT culture may be different from the company culture.
• Identify your users, stakeholders and partners, champions and antagonists.
• Build on relationships developed by those who work across different departments eg business relationship managers.
• Break down silos eg move business analysts into the IT team.
• ‘Demystify IT’ for the business otherwise easy things can be perceived as difficult and difficult things as easy.
• Communicate how the IT vision supports the business vision e.g. demonstrate the value that each IT service provides (helpdesk for customer retention, websites for inbound sales etc.) – don’t be afraid to ‘market’ your team to the wider organisation.
• Manage your overheads (licensing, contracting, overtime, purchasing) as IT is still perceived as a cost centre.
• Learn to speak the language of your line-manager.

Managing talent

• Put the effort into building career paths for staff so they can see where they will be in one, three and five years’ time.
• Create the space to take risks, ‘fail’ safely and learn from mistakes.
• Provide the best tools and encourage creativity within a collaborative environment to keep staff motivated and engaged.
• Know the skillsets you have available to you and get the right person for the job from the start – use the ICS CareerPlus tool to generate job descriptions for recruitment and as a mechanism to develop skills, reward and promote from within.
• Focus on people open to change within their role and willing (and able) to learn new skills as the technology develops eg Blockchain or AI.
• Consider using graduate programmes to compete for the best new talent and don’t rule out applicants from other disciplines eg how might an anthropology or sociology graduate help us develop online communities or inform ethics for the profession.
• Look for computing graduates who have some business, communication or requirements gathering skills.
• Develop digital skills across the organisation, not just within the IT department.
• Remove bias from your hiring processes (you might not know it’s even there.) by creating more gender neutral job descriptions.
• Be a ‘brand’ staff can be proud of – have clear policies on diversity, equality and demonstrate that you are an ethical organisation.

Finally, what does leadership in the digital age look like to today’s IT leaders? It’s clear that IT leaders want and recognise the need to change the business mind-set from delivering ‘minimum viable products’ to ‘quality products’ which focus on the feature sets most important to the customer.

In return, IT leaders have to be able to demonstrate what business gets back from an IT investment. They have a vital role in helping the business clarify its overall vision and goals, ideally from inside a C-suite that understands the IT functions and needs and the value it returns. IT leaders in the digital age will be doing something that every other person in the C-suite depends on.

In short, the goal for many is to do less of the ‘balancing act’ and to be more inspiring, engaging through leading with optimism.

You can read the full report and summary of all the other breakout sessions on ‘The 5G Enabled Digital Platform’, ‘AI’, ‘Cybersecurity’ and ‘The Future of IT 2030’ at www.ics.ie.

Upcoming courses

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For more information, or to sign up for any of our training courses, visit www.ics.ie/events or e-mail training@ics.ie.
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