Do it better: Here's how leaders lead in 2022
Recently, I had a chance to do something still rare in business today: meet face to face for lunch.
At a chain restaurant in Los Angeles (I had suggested a steakhouse, but accepted the practicality), I met up with the CIO of a mid-sized regional bank. We took time to catch up on the previous six months and then discussed initiatives she had on her radar for 2022. Like a lot of IT leaders, the pandemic had changed her role and how the rest of the organization viewed her team.
Because COVID-19 had accelerated the pace and demand for digital innovation, it had transformed her in the eyes of her CEO. He now saw her as a change agent and a business partner, far more than just someone who chooses the technology stack. Her team was now at the center of major transformation activities that went beyond just selecting and implementing new technology.
But there was concern. Like other technology leaders I’ve met with recently, this banking CIO had become accustomed – like all of us – to the 2D world of screens. But it’s the 3D world, the in-person world of lunches and strategy sessions that tomorrow’s IT leaders need to excel in.
"Like other technology leaders I’ve met with recently, this banking CIO had become accustomed – like all of us – to the 2D world of screens."
This idea is substantiated by Pega’s Future of IT survey, which shows executive roles shifting. Soft skills, like leadership, emotional and social intelligence, and problem solving, will become critical to driving business innovation. The survey’s respondents in senior vice president roles said leadership skills would increase in importance, from 29% currently to 43% in the future. Those in director roles will see it go from 28% to 34%. Problem solving will also see growth for senior directors, from 30% who say it’s critical now to 42% who say it will be critical in the future.
Key competencies of leadership skills, problem solving, and emotional and social skills will matter far more to IT professionals in two years. (Source: The future of IT report, 2021)
Many of these skills are best honed in the real world. But even if you’re remote – or, like an increasing number of us, hybrid – there are strategies you can start thinking through today to build and deepen the leadership and change management skills needed to succeed. The key is not some new technology (sorry tech people). It’s crafting a playbook to upgrade your and your team’s soft skills.
That said, here are three often misunderstood soft skills that you’ll need to lead:
Yes, we’ve all heard this buzzword tossed around as if it’s an elixir to solve all of an organization’s problems. But empathy without true understanding of others’ concerns and goals is pointless. Shane Bray, head of customer experience at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, pushes his team to develop a deep understanding of internal stakeholders and customers. This means getting out and interviewing customers and learning what pains and aspirations they have. Shane, a former U.S. Air Force veteran who served as a combat medic and who is himself deeply empathetic, recently told me, “Curiosity is what drives empathy and deepens your understanding of a problem. Curiosity requires you to look authentically at how you’re going to solve a problem.”
"Curiosity is what drives empathy and deepens your understanding of a problem. Curiosity requires you to look authentically at how you’re going to solve a problem."
This past summer, Shane’s team led a solution design sprint across a hybrid team of 30 technology, business, and customer experience leaders. The solution design sprint was a fast-paced, three-day session. It used design thinking to deepen the team’s empathy and understanding around transforming the healthcare member experience to quickly resolve medical claims issues. During the sprint, Shane urged the team to interview at least one external customer as part of the customer observation stage. Several interviews completely changed their perceptions of what solutions would work best.
“Insights uncovered through customer interviews unlocked new ideas for eliminating the frustration members go through when claims are denied, and in some cases preventing claims from being denied altogether,” Shane told me.
It’s clear from Shane’s and many others’ experience that talking to customers deepens your understanding and could fundamentally change the way you approach a particular problem or challenge. Today, such design thinking and customer journey mapping skills are table stakes for driving innovation. But without the addition of emotional intelligence and curiosity, these techniques cannot achieve their full impact.
In the innovation leadership coaching program I run, technology leaders say that “building influence” is their biggest challenge. They want to get better at influencing strategic decisions and digital transformation priorities. But how?
I asked one technology leader who runs the program management office for a large manufacturer why he lacks influence with executives. “They don’t trust my team to drive innovation because they don’t believe we fully understand the business’s priorities and they believe we slow down innovation,” he said. He needed to prioritize building trust before he could build influence.
That’s because influence is not about manipulation or gamesmanship. It’s about being of service to others. One technology leader told me she built up her influence by focusing on a personal mission statement. For her, it was: “To deliver new innovations that help lower the cost of home ownership for families buying their first home.” If you’re looking to build trust, there are good tips in David Horsager’s book “The Trust Edge,” which focuses on personal consistency, compassion, character, competency, and commitment.
Unlike teaching, facilitation is helping guide, orchestrate, and support collaboration across different stakeholders. Shane told me, “The advice I give to other leaders is that you have to learn when to shut up in meetings, and also learn when to speak up.”
Shane’s advice is that technology and business leaders must become facilitators of conversations in groups and one-to-one settings. Keep in mind that remote facilitation tools, while handy, are no replacement for actual facilitation skills. While software that provides virtual digital white boards are useful, remote participants often get lost in the tool instead of working together. The most important facilitation tool is you. Your energy brings life to the conversation and helps drive consensus around big decisions.
Shane’s final advice to me on the topic of soft skills was poignant: “The most important step to improving as a facilitator is to invest time upfront in building relationships,” he said. Taking the time to build relationships – through one-on-one check-ins (even if that’s a quick lunch at a chain restaurant not of your choosing) helps you gain perspective that is crucial when it comes time to facilitate change or build consensus. Investing in upgrading your personal operating system is not just about taking a new course or going through a soft skills training program. Instead, you must build new innovation muscles. That is one of the greatest transformation opportunities you will face in your career as a technology leader.