It's an old cliche that tech geeks lack social skills, but it remains true, says Sharon Gazda, president of Edizen, an executive coaching and management consultancy based in Springfield, Mass. When working with CIO wannabes, she finds them struggling over and over to develop the interpersonal skills needed to succeed in leadership roles. "The folks that best understand what networking means from a technology side are the least likely to understand people networks," she says. "They don't even see them."
To uncover specific skills that IT staff can use to transition from the basement cubicle to the executive suite, Gazda surveyed more than 30 executives earlier this year who had made the switch. These CIOs, CTOs and other CXOs were drawn from a cross-section of technology companies and companies with large IT workforces in New England and New York. From her one-on-one conversations, Gazda drew three lessons for managers of up-and-coming CIOs.
Connect the wetware. To understand the business as a whole, IT staffers must establish regular communication with internal and external customers. Yet "left to their own devices, techs prefer to keep to themselves. It is not their tendency to be out there interacting," Gazda says. Paul Donovan, executive vice president and CIO of Atlanta-based ING U.S. Financial Services, counters this propensity by designating his senior IT managers as "relationship managers" and pairing each with the head of a business unit. The IT managers in effect join the business units, acquiring desk space and attending staff meetings, says Donovan, who participated in Gazda's survey.
Get out of the tech silo. Training conferences are a time-honored way for IT workers to update their technology skills. So why not management skills too? "The next time someone comes to you about a technology conference, say, That's great, but have you thought about negotiation skills or facilitation skills?" Gazda says.
Help workers get a life. The work-life balance is often hard, but Gazda believes techies are particularly prone to focusing on work at the expense of social contact. IT staffers "are more comfortable at a computer," she says. "They tend to have the attention span and attention to detail to stay there for hours." To combat this, she suggests that managers establish off-hours social activities and stay in touch with their employees' personal lives.
IT work "has big peaks and valleys; it's very demanding," Donovan says. "CIOs have to plan [IT work] to be a normal job, to take into account the difficulties."
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