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Key leadership skills for IT in 2021

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

While IT leadership skills have always been important, they’ve been put under the microscope during this year’s mass shift to remote work brought on by the pandemic. Certain skill sets are now imperative for companies’ success in this situation, and will only become increasingly important in the coming year. With components such as information security and employee collaboration at the heart of business continuity, quality leadership has become increasingly important. A recent study by Deloitte revealed the qualities most valued in tech leaders; among these, almost 70 percent rated change and learning orientation as the most important tech leadership quality.

This kind of adaptability can be further fleshed out in three key skills that effective IT leaders possess: developing a business-centric decision-making culture for your team, building trust and encouraging innovation, and the ability to evaluate and hire talent into the organization.

Developing a business-centric decision-making culture for your team.

To sustain investments and growth in the IT organization, IT must begin to think and act like other business units. Before implementation, all IT programs and new technology acquisition should be put to a business case justification that takes into account:

  • quantification of resources needed for each program,
  • measurement of risk to the business by not undertaking the program,
  • outlining the highest and best value to the business, and
  • simple, reportable key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure outcomes.

Many times, IT only puts projects in the context of stopping threats or saving money, and this may often miss the highest impact to the business overall.

The best way to acquire this skill is to seek out mentoring by a fellow executive, like the chief financial officer, the chief marketing officer or the vice president of field operations. Ask those leaders to walk through how they’ve learned to best develop KPIs and business cases for new technology. Additionally, to build on this knowledge, do a part-time MBA or executive leadership course.

Over time, you can improve this skill by developing a basic decision-making framework for your team. Run through exercises with your team for existing IT programs and evaluate their effectiveness. Record outcomes and measure changes over time. Developing and being accountable for outcomes is the best way to hone a business outcomes mindset for IT teams and departments. Taking the first step as an IT leader to change your team’s perspective from a cost center to a “business impact” center actively encourages your team to experiment with KPIs that are measurable over time.

Building trust and encouraging innovation

Teams that are trusted by the IT leadership and are encouraged to innovate, often feel a sense of personal ownership over the technology and will come up with creative ways to improve development velocity and code quality. When this environment does not exist, teams often behave as “order takers” and will not go above and beyond to help the business be successful or develop innovative solutions for your product.

To gain this skill, start building your team with facilitating creativity as a point of focus. When hiring team members, focus on people who want to work in an innovative environment and inspire your trust. While trust is something usually to be earned, it’s important to guide your team to a place where there’s a high degree of trust and open communication. This will give your team the confidence to be creative in their approach and innovate clever solutions.

You can continue to improve this skill over time in multiple ways. There are many resources available for learning about how to be an empowering leader and how to “garden path” your team to a creative solution rather than dictating your solution. Ideas developed by the team will have the team buy-in and result in better outcomes, making it beneficial to nourish these suggestions from the bottom up. Letting your team know you trust them and giving them the latitude to innovate will result in a high-quality software product while improving the team culture.

The ability to evaluate and hire talent into the organization

Good teams equal high-performing organizations, which equal revenue. This is especially true now with the skills shortage in DevOps and security. In the DevOps Institute’s 2020 Upskilling report, 58 percent of respondents said finding skilled individuals is extremely challenging, and 48 percent said retaining skilled DevOps individuals is also difficult. And according to research by ESG, 70 percent of cybersecurity professionals feel their organization is experiencing a cybersecurity skills shortage.

If you’re a leader with a growth mindset and knowledge of modern methods and tools, others will want to work for you— especially in technology. Keep your knowledge current and surround yourself with people who also bring additional knowledge to the table. This increases your credibility with others and your ability to evaluate not just what, but who you need.

More specifically, stay aware of all of the public cloud services out there, the core enterprise SaaS apps available, what the security model around that stack is, and how to properly manage these external services. That will make you more valuable to your organization, more apt as a leader and more marketable as an employee.

You can improve this skill over time via the many forums and products that provide guidance on these matters. For example, you can get your certification from AWS or another public cloud or use DevOps/SecOps guidance platforms to help you know how to implement these technologies in a secure fashion. You can use this knowledge as a training tool to train and strengthen your team while building on your personal understanding.

Never stop learning

Considering the abrupt, widespread move to remote work this past year, the pandemic put a particular spotlight on the importance of good IT leadership. This challenge has certainly put leaders through a rapid learning curve, but focusing and practicing the key skills noted above can help leaders navigate current and future changes. These skills can be a key differentiator in an organization’s success, both in creating successful products and building an agile, innovative IT team.

Patrick Murray, Chief Product Officer, Tugboat Logic (opens in new tab)

Patrick Murray is Chief Product Officer and early founding member of Tugboat Logic, the Security Assurance Platform that helps demystify and automate the process of managing your InfoSec program. He has over 20 years of experience in product management at both early-stage security startups and public companies such as Zenprise, DataVisor, and Websense. He specializes in building new companies from the ground up to thriving businesses, and has built products across a variety of security areas including Web security, cloud security, mobile security, email security, data loss prevention, and online fraud prevention.