IT Leadership and Business Enablement

Doug Streit, Senior IT Advisor, former Executive Director, CISO, & CIO at Old Dominion University

Managing an enterprise IT organization requires continuous development of management skills.  Rather than getting simpler, the enterprise IT landscape continues to advance, adding complexity to the mix. Tech advancements hold the promise of harnessing data and automation while lowering unacceptable growth in costs. Newer technology and skill sets may not immediately or entirely replace older technology and methodology. This means adding complexity and new skills onto the existing, along with ample strategizing to optimize resources along the way. Senior organizational leadership can benefit from working with IT leadership in prioritizing and crafting the path to a cohesive and more effective business-IT strategy so as to optimally navigate the challenges of today’s complex IT services landscape.

Increasingly, there is a need for a skillset in senior IT executives that may not always be intuitively gained in the normal progression of an IT career — that skillset is leadership.

Advances in technology force our IT managers to invest heavily in technical knowledge and capability to keep up with trends and advancements. There is no getting around it.

For the purpose of this article, leadership in IT is defined as the ability to grasp the strategic interests of the organization, understand the longer-term implications of available options, craft a vision of how to navigate the strategic interests of the organization effectively, and build relationships that will produce influence within the IT organization and across the business. Positive influence results in a more effective execution of a shared strategy. These relationships and influence involve communication and relational skills — personal, written, and public communication, and people skills that build trust, partnerships, enthusiasm, and positive influence.  This definition is important in understanding how to attract and retain leaders in addition to capable managers.

Dale Carnegie, in his legendary book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “the person who has technical knowledge plus the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people—that person is headed for higher earning power.” He stated that he would do more to attract and retain leadership skills than he would for the technically capable. He put a greater emphasis on the human side of the equation when he conveyed, “about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering—to personality and the ability to lead people.”

Advances in technology force our IT managers to invest heavily in technical knowledge and capability to keep up with trends and advancements. There is no getting around it. The management of IT — hiring, performance management, problem-solving, monitoring, reporting, responding, delegating, and budgeting — will demand a focus on the development of tools and capabilities in order to effectively manage. However, it is the ingredient of leadership that will either energize and elevate the overall product when present or marginalize and limit even the best IT manager when absent.

Leaders are like 7-Eleven convenience stores.  It seems the more there are, the more business they generate.  Rather than limiting the effectiveness of one store by adding another, there can be a 7-Eleven on nearly every corner. The net result is more business for all of the stores!  An organization that values and engages leaders will multiply their effectiveness!  Leaders will attract other leaders, specialists, and champions who can become force multipliers within the organization.  Organizations that don’t have the capacity or the will to attract and engage leaders will likely “manage” with great managers, but at hidden cost to longer term advancement, excellence, business-IT alignment, and business enablement.  If managers are less than great, the product is a more reactive and less strategically aligned IT services foundation.

Information Technology leaders are of tremendous value to an organization, especially in light of the challenges of ever-advancing technology, optimizing technical skill sets, and finite budgets.  Hiring a manager who is not focused on developing as a leader transfers the leadership role to the most senior executives who strongly pursue business interests but who may not be as attuned to the challenges of today’s IT services landscape. IT management then simply fulfills expectations and carries out the plan, whether or not that plan is the best strategy for the alignment and use of IT resources.  Having managers enact change in this way can be quicker and easier at the moment but with significant risk to finding more optimal paths and at a hidden cost over time.

Seeking out individuals with the desire and capacity to lead, will carry a cost to attract and retain, partly in salary and partly in other tangible ways of demonstrating value, yet with a benefit that can multiply the investment in IT. The real cost is in the commitment to invest through nurturing, developing, and factoring for things that will be expected from a leader. An IT leader, being consistent with the definition, will want, and need, to take part in crafting the direction and the roadmap.  An IT leader will need to be cultivated within the organization by demonstrating trust and partnership, ensuring relevancy by valuing their part in the strategic dialogue and decision-making, and through inclusion not only in what needs to happen but also in how to get there. The benefits lie in the leader’s drive to embrace and foster a shared vision, to help craft plans based on experience and a depth of technical and relational understanding, and to communicate and rally enthusiastic and cohesive partnerships throughout the organization, in IT, and among the business divisions.

In the post “Great Resignation” era, and faced with an ongoing reshuffling of talent, it is as vital as ever to put a high premium on this key skill set when recruiting and building your IT team — Leadership. It will take a commitment to attract, retain, cultivate, and gain the benefit of a leader. However, the benefits will be realized in strategic alignment that results in greater business enablement in a shorter period of time. With IT leadership, our business can realize the power of information technology in enabling and advancing our business objectives more fully, which is the promise of nearly every technological advancement.

Doug Streit has held progressive responsibilities in IT over the past 26 years, leading to IT manager, director, executive director, CISO, and CIO.