Must-have people skills for aspiring CIOs

Leading by example is an essential part of the role, says Scott Youngs, CIO of Key Information Systems
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[Editor's note: As part of our ongoing series in which IT leaders offer advice to the next generation of CIOs, Scott Youngs, CIO of Key Information Systems, explains why it's so important for a CIO to have their team's backs.]

My first CIO job:

This is actually my first CIO job.

Prior experience:

I have always been in IT, and started out running cable for mainframe terminals way back in the mid-1980s. That was back when you had to solder the wire ends into the DB9 connections yourself – by candlelight. I worked my way up from being a mainframe operator to a help desk technician to a network administrator before I made the jump to IT management. I found I had a knack for translating technology-speak into executive-speak, and I was able to manage IT personalities and their quirks. I’ve held management positions such as help desk manager, network manager, director of IT, and director of operations.

What my first CIO job taught me:

The biggest takeaway so far has been understanding that the hardest decisions IT leaders must make have nothing to do with technology; they have to do with people. I don’t mean to imply that someone with limited technology skills will flourish as an IT leader; an IT leader absolutely needs to understand the technologies their team is maintaining or proposing. But successful IT leaders absolutely need to have sharp people skills to keep the team operating as a unit and not as 50 individuals.

There is a myriad of examples where organizations put the best IT engineer in charge of the engineering group, only to see productivity and effectiveness drop tremendously. Why? Because the best engineers may not have the people/leadership skills necessary for the job.

[ See our related story: Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

My advice for aspiring CIOs:

If you don’t have their backs, they’ll never come through for you when it’s crunch time.

Aspiring IT leaders need to know that it’s not just all IT, all day long. You need to possess a myriad of non-IT skills to be successful. You need to be able to know how to hire and fire, create and execute budgets, understand all lines of business in your organization, provide personal counseling, manage employee conflicts, manage both short and long-term projects, negotiate contracts, and interact with clients.

CIOs need to inspire and lead by example. There is no “do as I say, not as I do” in leadership, IT or otherwise. You set the tone, and if you’re not committed to the cause or putting in the hours, they won't be either.

Also, you need to have your team members’ backs. I don’t mean you should cover up mistakes or defend them even when you know they’re wrong, but you need to take the brunt of the backlash and then deal with the issue fairly. That’s part of what you get paid to do. If you don’t have their backs, they’ll never come through for you when it’s crunch time and you need them to go the extra, extra mile. If you’re not fair, they’ll go find another job somewhere else.  Excessive turnover does not look good for a business leader.

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Scott Youngs is the chief information officer of Key Information Systems, Inc., a leading regional systems integrator with world-class compute, storage and networking solutions and professional services for the most advanced software-defined data centers.