6 habits of successful IT leaders in 2021

One thing we have learned from the pandemic crisis is how much improvement many of us need as IT leaders. With the fresh start of the new year approaching, here are key habits to develop
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All leaders were challenged in 2020. As the year that walloped the world winds down, it’s a natural time to think ahead about what you’d like to do differently next year.

We asked our community of IT leaders and experts to share a key habit they believe IT leaders should cultivate in 2021 to adapt to these changing times. From doing a better job prioritizing, to developing a meditation practice, here are some habits that could serve you well in 2021. 

1. Streamline your focus

“Don’t let the urgent distract you and your team from the important. Tactical execution is essential, but overemphasis on the tactical makes you lose sight of what’s strategic. One way to get you and your team focused on what’s most important is to do Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. Objectives let you set annual and quarterly objectives and the Key Results help you identify what needs to be accomplished to achieve your objectives. To get started, I recommend these two books on the subject, Measure What Matters and Radical Focus, both of which I really enjoyed.” – David Egts, Chief Technologist for North America Public Sector, Red Hat

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

2. Develop deeper empathy

“One of the many things we have learned from this crisis is how much improvement many of us need as IT leaders. Getting into the habit of working on developing our emotional intelligence daily will make us better leaders. This is often pointed out in others. However, we need to examine ourselves and find better ways to deal with the many emotions that arise from our current circumstances. IT leaders need to examine their own level of empathy as they manage folks they may no longer be able to walk over to and have a conversation with as you please. As we lead during this time of flexible schedules and distributed workforce, focus on developing more empathy and, honestly, just a bit more grace.” 

“Be vulnerable and provide an atmosphere that will allow your team to feel supported to still do their best work even in this difficult time. Do not be that leader with a team that looks to get as far away from you following this crisis, or the leader whose team members throw in the towel before this crisis ends just to maintain their sanity.”  – Cedric Wells, Director, IT Infrastructure Services, The Gorilla Glue Company

3. Start meditating 

“Don’t you wish you had the superpower to maintain zen-like calm in the face of chaos and thrash the numerous obstacles that 2020 threw at you? Meditation is a powerful habit that can unlock this superpower. Many top business leaders like Ray Dalio, bestselling authors like Yuval Harari owe all their success to meditation.”

You don’t need to be trained by a monk, nor do you need to commit an hour to start meditating.

“You don’t need to be trained by a monk, nor do you need to commit an hour to start meditating. There are many self-help books and apps that can get you started right away, with as little as five minutes every day. Meditation can make you more mindful, reduce stress levels, improve focus, and help you stay in emotional control. Don’t we all need these today? To go faster, you must slow down.” Ganes Kesari, co-founder and chief decision scientist, Gramener

[ Is mindfulness for you? Learn from a CTO who was skeptical but now makes mindfulness a daily habit: Mindfulness: 3 ways leaders can get started. ]

4. Use agile principles

“IT Leaders should set clear and prioritized objectives with their lieutenants and teams especially on strategic, transformation, and innovation programs. To do this, IT leaders should leverage agile principles by setting clear expectations and empowering teams to commit to the work they can complete during agile sprints and releases.” 

“Leaders should also set guidelines on how to use communication and collaboration technologies consistently, and recognize that in-person interactions, decision-making meetings, and brainstorming sessions all need digital practices. Businesses across many industries are evolving and facing disruption, so the more leaders shape executable strategies and set execution guidelines, the greater likelihood they can respond to changing conditions.” – Isaac Sacolick, President of StarCIO and author of Driving Digital  

5. Improve communication skills

“As remote work has become the norm, effective communication has become critical for IT leaders. When we don’t effectively communicate, we really leave gray areas where assumptions are made and mistakes take hold. Be sure to clarify requirements and frame what success looks like for a project. Don’t just do this for the project conclusion, but also for every step along the way. Ask your team targeted questions to ensure your project goals are being understood.” 

“In talking with my people, the one thing they’ve appreciated the most this year is being given the flexibility to work around the personal struggles COVID-19 has brought with it. With kids doing e-learning and multiple parents working out of the house, it has become very challenging to stick to a traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Continue to show empathy and go the extra mile for your people. That caring and concern will make a lasting impact.”  – Mark Runyon, Principal Consultant, Improving

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

6. Stop dictating training plans

“Let employees be the captain of their own careers but support them with upskilling options. New technologies or processes require new skills, just as your business teams demand different services, software, or capabilities to help them enable customers, patients, or employees. No matter if these are human skills or technical skills, the traditional methods of sending employees to training or events will no longer suffice. And it does not motivate individuals when you dictate what should be on a training or skill-up plan.”

“Let your team members take charge of their own plans and skill development. Their active participation and ability to determine where and what they want to improve ensures you have their buy-in. Then step up and collaborate with them on the best ways to achieve the development. If you can’t afford a large-scale training program, get creative. Some employees may be willing to take a pay cut to fund the education or certification needs. Other options include job rotations, internal coaching, attending virtual events, or hosting internal training days. The combination of employee desire to upskill and the investment into upskilling by leaders will ensure that your company has better leaders and team players.” Eveline Oehrlich, Chief Research Director, DevOps Institute

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

As community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helps build the site's community of CIOs, IT leaders, and readers. She is responsible for helping tell the stories of leading IT executives – showcasing the projects, experiences, and challenges they're facing in their roles as IT leaders.

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