IT leadership: 9 powerful ways to coach your rising stars

Your organization's rising IT leaders face huge expectations from business stakeholders right now. Are you coaching them to grow, deliver – and stay?
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Today's IT leaders and managers be fluent in an ever-growing list of technology fundamentals, plus think and operate as part of the business, creating connections and building trust with key stakeholders. “IT leaders need to become even more facile with the language of business, and they have to go deeper than that to strengthen their empathy muscle — recognizing how [technology] impacts a stakeholder, recognizing the pain around it, and communicating that they recognize it,” says Elizabeth Freedman, head of consulting at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates.

Unfortunately, the next generation of tech leaders may lack some of the related skills — and it’s not necessarily their own fault. They’ve been busy during the past two years, to say the least. “That next level of leader is just not ready to lead in [these] ways,” Freedman says. “Their heads are down.”

One-on-one coaching is critical to grooming more fully-formed IT leaders.

Rising IT professionals need clear direction, correction, and encouragement to mature into the multi-faceted business leaders that their organizations require. While training and classes may help, one-on-one coaching is critical to grooming more fully-formed IT leaders.

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IT leadership: How to be a better coach

That means today’s technology chiefs may need to level up in the coaching department. Consider these fresh tips for doing just that.

1. Start sooner

There’s no denying that IT leaders are stretched thin. But coaching would-be leaders must happen now. “You need to get really good at building your pipeline and skilling your people earlier than you would in the past,” Freedman says. “So, today’s IT leaders need to think about this when they think about coaching others: Start sooner, reach deeper, build skills earlier.”

2. Seek to understand

Make sure you comprehend the desires of the person you’re coaching to avoid Sisyphean efforts. Dig deeper to determine the IT professional’s goals or objectives, advises Ciara Van De Velde, client engagement manager with Employee Boost.

Do they want to pursue a leadership role within IT or are they interested in making a career change? “Ask questions within the sessions to help… brainstorm their strengths or areas [in need of]of improvement,” Van De Velde says.

3. Go beyond performance management

As the HR learning and certification organization HRCI notes: Performance coaching is more collaborative than performance management. The aim of coaching is not to meet a baseline level of contribution, but to help employees reach their full potential. That demands ongoing conversation, not just an annual check-in. 

4. Increase your visibility

“Demand for talent is high, and in order to build and maintain a team of happy, productive and engaged employees, some flexibility on the part of leadership will always be essential to address individual team member wishes and needs,” says Michele Bailey, author of The Currency Of Gratitude: Turning Small Gestures Into Powerful Business Results, and founder of mentoring program My Big Idea.

Make sure to stay connected to your key team members, whether they are asking for coaching or not. “Whether your team is working from the office or remotely, as a leader you need to keep up regular communication on a personal level to stay in touch,” says Van De Velde. “In these challenging times, we must maintain focus on the well-being of our team members by staying connected and appreciative.”

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5. Loosen your grip

Top-down delegation will never develop the next generation of CIOs. IT leaders who want to be better coaches need to get better at co-creating, delegating, empowering, and (ultimately) trusting the people they hire.

“This grows important skills around communication and decision-making in that next level of leadership,” Freedman says. “Keeping things close to the vest and making all the decisions no longer works – particularly in IT.”

6. Look beyond IT for your future MVPs

“The fact that you have to grow up in IT to be in it has been debunked.”

Given the importance of non-tech skills to IT success, IT leaders may find their time better spent coaching non-IT professionals in tech understanding than in developing technology experts into business leaders. “What is cool is that we are seeing non-traditional people coming into IT, which is a great trend,” says Freedman. “The fact that you have to grow up in IT to be in it has been debunked.”

7. Apply your EQ

Emotional intelligence is critical to effective coaching. Empathy, self-awareness, curiosity, clarity – all of these core capabilities will better equip an IT leader to coach team members in a more collaborative, genuine, and more well-received fashion. (For more on how CIOs build their EQ muscles, read “Working on your emotional intelligence? Try these CIO tips”.)

8. Foster self-awareness

The goal is not to create reliance on coaching but to empower employees to think – and learn and grow – on their own. “Learning how to self-coach is a real art and something that is naturally inside all of us,” says Arran Stewart, co-founder of recruiting platform “Learning how to become your own coach is a real superpower.”

9. Improve your active listening skills

IT leaders can foster a growth mindset with their coaching efforts in a number of ways. One is to practice active listening, “one of the most valuable skills any leader can have,” according to Don Rheem, author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures and CEO of E3 Solutions, a provider of employee workplace metrics and manager training.

“A foundational element of active listening is to demonstrate that you hear and understand their message at a deeper level than a simple nod of the head,” Rheem says. This might involve hearing what the employee says, relating back to them what you have heard, and then talking through a process of problem solving or self-discovery. (To improve your active listening, check out “10 ways for leaders to be better listeners now”.)

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.