What it takes to lead IT today: 9 tips from top execs

Up your IT leadership game with this proven advice
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Today’s IT leaders have their work cut out for them. The role of the CIO has transformed as businesses increasingly look to IT and technology-led initiatives to outdo rivals in the digital era. Whether leading digital transformation, championing technology change, or creating new, revenue-driving products, IT leaders are on the hook to deliver business-changing outcomes. This all takes vision, commitment, and exceptional leadership skills. 

[Learn proven tactics of IT leaders known for generating revenue in our strategy snapshot series.]

We recently asked award-winning IT leaders from organizations including United Airlines, Landauer, and The PrivateBank to share the most important leadership lessons they had learned. Some shared lessons they’d been taught early in their careers – advice that they used year after year. Others shared lessons gained from decades of experience. Explore this powerful list of firsthand advice for IT leaders and step up your game. 

1. Encourage leadership in others

Matthew Kull, CIO, Parkland Health: Developing and nurturing talent within one’s area is one of the cornerstones of forming a successful team. I’ve actively focused on hiring and promoting internally, encouraging leadership development through classes and coaching, and encouraging employees to take the time to learn new skills and expand their boundaries. 

2. Get the right people on board

John Burke, CIO, Ambit Energy: First, you need to find the best people for the job and figure out how to afford them. Nothing beats getting the right people on the bus. It saves a lot of time, energy, and frustration later down the road. Also, talent attraction and retention are huge. You have to be genuine and give people a purpose when they go to work. It’s my job to give that to them and to communicate it. And finally, meet everyone you hire. I make it a point to talk to everyone and make sure they understand our vision and that they have that passion. Because if you get their heart, you get their mind, and their mind is what you want.

3. Make your aspirations known

Linda Jojo, EVP, technology, and chief digital officer, United Airlines: It’s important to do a great job in the job you have. But if you aspire to do something different, make sure that those responsible for the hiring and making those decisions know what you’re interested in. If the constraints or parameters about what you can or can’t do at a different point in your career are changing, make sure people understand when they’re changing and why.   

4. Make the “impossible” possible 

Doug King, CIO, Landauer: Making a connection with your people is extremely important. It can be a professional connection or a personal connection. Whatever it may be, I take pride and make it a point to know my team members’ spouse’s name, how many kids they have, how old they are, etc. Never underestimate how far a simple question like “how is your son/daughter doing?” can go. It shows your team that you care. And from a leadership perspective, when you take the time to truly make that connection, loyalty goes up, motivation goes up, and people are more highly dedicated to the outcome.

I’ve also learned that a true leader is someone who can help their team see and achieve outcomes that they might never see themselves. It’s easy for teams to look at deadlines, due dates, or budgets and say, “There is no way we can do that. That’s impossible.” The ability to shift their mindset from “impossible” to “possible” and to guide them towards that outcome – that is a leadership skill that’s unique and hard to find.

5. Encourage healthy debate

Robert Pischke, VP of IT, Lehigh Hanson: If you take care of the people, they will take care of the rest. You also want to underpromise and overdeliver. Lastly, not any one of us is smarter than all of us. When we get into a room and we foster an environment that has a healthy discussion and debate, the best answer will rise to the top. Creating that collaborative environment helps accelerate the corporation’s achievement of their goals.

6. Lead with dignity and respect

Juan Fontanes, VP of IT, NEC Corporation of North America: The shadow you cast is much longer than you think. It’s really incumbent upon me, every day, to try and be my best, be at the top of my game, and treat absolutely everybody with dignity and respect. If I fall down on that, I make sure I make it right and apologize. The second lesson is take time to have those little three-, four-, or five-minute conversations with your employees – in the hallway, at the water cooler, wherever. Being accessible is important.

7. Show up

Charlie Feld, founder and CEO, The Feld Group Institute: I would say show up. A good leader shows up and really engages. Too many people get caught up in spending too much time with vendors or consultants instead of their business peers and their IT teams. If you end up in your office taking meetings with vendors or out at networking events or analyst conferences too much, you’re not involved in your own department, nor are you building relationships with your business peers or the executive team. You’ve got to get engaged in a balanced way – internally and externally, with the business and your IT department. Learn to manage your calendar to be in the trenches with the people, from both the business and IT, because they matter the most as your teammates on this journey.

8. Get in the trenches at tough times

Dean Haacker, CTO, The PrivateBank: Set the strategy, goals, and direction, but don’t micromanage the work. Hire the best people you can find and give them freedom to identify and pursue solutions to the goals and challenges. Provide continuous support, encouragement, and coaching to help remove obstacles along the way. Communicate and ask questions to clarify and understand the situation before giving directions. Be tough on process and problems, but soft with people. Think big, start small, and deliver soon on big initiatives. Don’t be afraid to get in the trenches with the team when the going gets tough. You can offer insights and perspectives they might not be able to see from their vantage point and find another path to a solution. Finally, enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

9. Articulate a clear vision

Hardik Bhatt, CIO, State of Illinois: If you’re looking at doing a major, large-scale digital transformation, you really need to be a good storyteller. You need to come up with a very clear vision and be able to articulate that so you get buy-in, not just from management, but also from rank-and-file employees. The other thing is that all this takes teamwork. You need to really build a very robust, winning team, and build a culture that actually builds itself through momentum and early wins. Also, you need to continuously provide good news like wins – you can’t just focus on large platform changes and come back two years later with good news. And lastly, you need a champion at the top level. Having the governor be the champion of technology transformation is critical. You need your CEO to champion what you’re doing.

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


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