With the explosion of information, the shift to digital business, and the prevalence of disruptive technologies, IT now permeates every aspect of the business. IT is expected to deliver more value, help drive innovation, and challenge the status quo. As IT looks to put itself in a position to achieve these goals, there are simple training steps leaders and business partners can take to strengthen themselves, much in the way an athlete works to improve their strength.

 

Where IT is Falling Short

George Colony, founder and CEO of Forrester, wrote about a CIO’s need to “lead with a customer-driven mindset,” owning both back office and business technology systems (i.e. the systems focusing on marketing and selling to customers). An article from KPMG about building a future-ready IT function also accurately sums up most company’s state of affairs:

“There’s simply no longer business strategy and technology strategy. There’s just strategy, and technology is driving it.”

When trying to operate on this expanded playing field, the specialized technologist can often find themselves falling short of the higher expectations from the business. It’s similar to placing a successful athlete in an entirely different sport and expecting them to excel, and yet, the sports world can offer compelling insight into understanding how IT can evolve and succeed regardless of the operating environment.

Looking at multi-sport athletes, findings show that diversifying across sports improves overall athleticism. Playing different sports allows one to develop different skills, movements, strategies, and work well both within a team and individually.

The same holds true for the benefits of IT playing across broader areas of the business. IT leaders and business partners learn how to see the bigger picture and understand different strategies and activities across different groups. This broader exposure provides unprecedented opportunity to improve overall leadership capabilities.

 

Two Key Areas to Target for Development

Multi-sport athletes even train differently and focus their development on specific areas: mindset and core muscles.

First, these athletes develop an open and adaptable mindset. In each situation, they have to determine the objective and ask: Who are my teammates and opponents? What strengths and perspectives do they bring? What critical factors affect performance? How do I win?

In a similar manner, IT leaders and business partners who bring curiosity and a growth mindset have the ability to approach new situations with an open mind so they can operate more effectively in ambiguous and changing environments.

Second, multi-sport athletes are obsessed with building a strong core. These complex series of muscles are incorporated in almost every movement of the human body, and maintaining a strong core has multiple benefits, including:

  • More power in peak performance moments

  • Easier execution of everyday activities

  • Better flexibility & stability

  • A decrease in the likelihood of injury

If building core muscles is so crucial to being successful across sports, how does that mindset transfer to leadership skills that impact IT leader and business partner performance? Three sets of competencies make up the core leadership skills incorporated in almost every activity when working to drive greater business outcomes.

  • Collaboration. The most effective IT leaders leverage their networks to source the right information and mitigate bias. They create more productive exchanges with key stakeholders because they treat their time preciously and plan appropriately to source the most critical and necessary information. They value multiple perspectives and push colleagues to consider all possible ways to think about a situation.

  • Investigation. Bigger business problems and opportunities require a more structured and transparent approach to turn information into decisions. IT leaders need to look to not only align their strategy with today’s needs, but also where the business wants to go. They have to go beyond just sharing data and develop a defensible point of view that can help the business answer the question, “So what?”

  • Persuasion. Driving organizational change is the hallmark of an effective leader, but also one most leaders lack. High impact IT leaders engage both the hearts and minds of key stakeholders to build consensus and drive action. They realize that with all of the turbulence and change in the current work environment, their ability to cut through the noise and capture attention is crucial.

No matter the challenge or opportunity–be it digital transformation, driving innovation, or developing more experimental capabilities–the more IT strengthens and develops these core leadership skills, the greater the likelihood of success and true business impact.

 

How to Build Core Leadership Strength

Studies about the current state of IT suggests most businesses are operating with a weak core.

  • In Gartner’s 2018 CIO Survey, only 23% of respondents rated their organization as effective or very effective at business strategy and planning, and only 29% rated their organization as effective or very effective at IT strategy and planning.

  • Forrester’s ‘Future of IT’ estimates that no more than 20% of current CIOs can fulfill the expanded mandate to innovate and create more value.

There is, however, good news: In the same way that a person can take steps to strengthen core muscles, IT can develop core leadership skills. Here are three essential activities to start developing the core leadership skills on your IT team:

ADOPT A B1T2 MINDSET

No, B1T2 isn’t a Star Wars character; rather it stands for “business first, technology second.” With every project, stop and ask, “What business problem or business opportunity does this align to?” If there isn’t clarity on the business objective, or how to measure success, that’s an indication to slow down and ask questions.

PRACTICE CURIOSITY

Every innovation began with someone curious enough to ask questions and look past biases within themselves or others to see new possibility. Find areas that you’re curious about in the business and practice exploring. Clayton Christensen, an authority on disruptive innovation suggests asking, “What ‘job’ does your customer ‘hire’ your product or service to do?”

CONFRONT UNCERTAINTY

The days when we had a playbook that we could pull off a shelf to help us understand what to do are gone. We need to change from a mindset of knowing to a mindset of learning. Make it okay to talk about what isn’t known. When you talk about what you don’t know, it opens the door to better questions, i.e. How could we learn more about this? Is there someone that has a valuable perspective? Can we run a test-and-learn experiment?

Developing stronger core leadership skills takes time, practice, and courage. Yet our experience tells us that it’s completely doable. Just like anyone can build core muscles, anyone can build core leadership skills.

Exceptional times call for exceptional performance. The path to exceptional performance in IT is through embracing the expanded role of driving business strategy and developing the core leadership skills necessary to excel at the task at hand.