Soft skills in IT: 10 CIOs share career advice

The most successful IT leaders offer more than just tech skills. Here are some thoughts on career-guiding advice on communication, empathy, and other key soft skills
42 readers like this.
CIO Hands Collaboration

What makes a great leader? Some of the most important and inspirational qualities have little to do with technology.

Recently, finalists in the 2022 National CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards each shared a piece of advice they had collected over their careers. We’ve rounded up the ten best quotes on soft skills below. Read on, or download the complete quote book for advice on leadership, soft skills, career development, strategy, and more.

IT career advice on soft skills

From the importance of authenticity to expressing gratitude, here are some memorable pieces of advice that have helped shape top leaders across a range of industries.

Show up

bridget collins cerence

Bridget Collins, Chief Transformation Officer & CIO, Cerence: One of my uncles is a retired executive in the automotive business. When I was in college he told me, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” and while I think the context was initially some form of encouragement to show up for class, that statement rings true many years later.

“Showing up” to me means being present – physically, and in today’s world, even virtually. Show up to the conversation, the meeting, the challenges, even the successes. Bring your best. Be humble. Be inquisitive. Seek always to gain knowledge and expand your horizons. Recognize that you don’t have all the answers, but you’ve shown up to learn from the collective knowledge in the room. Show up for your people. Your team, your coworkers, and even the conflicts that inevitably arise. Try to look at situations from others’ perspectives. Support the employee or team member who may be struggling to find their place. Build relationships within your own team and encourage relationship-building across all functions. Recognize you all have a common goal, and challenges are just the scenery on the journey.

Showing up is leadership. And while that advice probably saved me a grade or two in college, it truly guided my career. I have been lucky to learn from many incredible colleagues, expand my knowledge of technology and business, and support many team members over the course of my career. I still have a lot to learn, so I plan to keep showing up.

Be your true self

jeanine charlton merchants fleet

Jeanine Charlton, SVP & CTDO, IT, Merchants Fleet: The piece of advice that I was given early on in my career that has stuck is “always be true to your authentic self” (and your authentic intelligence, voice, and passion).

When we are different people at work than we are at home, we may experience insecurity, anxiety, and burnout. We don’t trust ourselves or our work because we are always performing – and daily performance is hard to maintain. When we are true to ourselves, we are better able to feel confident in our participation at work. There is no hiding or shrinking into the shadows – we are authentic, living in the full expression of what we are capable of.

I had to work at not competing with others or comparing myself to an impossible ideal: My authentic voice was enough. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and emphasized the need for innovative voices in technology. There are more opportunities than ever before, but tech remains a space many women feel uncomfortable entering.

After spending my entire career in this field, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. Women are invaluable assets to tech companies, with unique skills and perspectives that will only advance the progress we’ve made thus far. And while we may face discouraging statistics, we should not let them stop us from pursuing our passions. I learned to believe in the possibility of my success before I ever saw it come to fruition.

Be the message

sue-jean lin alcon

Sue-Jean Lin, SVP & CITO (Chief Information and Transformation Officer), Alcon: “It’s not about the slides your present, it’s the story you tell.”

This advice was shared with me more than two decades ago when I was a regional CFO. I had to learn what mattered wasn’t just facts and figures, it was the way that I came across and how I said it. Storytelling is about delivering the message to the targeted audience with the right tone, attitude, and energy level. People’s attention must be earned, and people’s buy-in can’t be taken for granted just because we got the facts right. To this day, I remind myself often, “We are the message.”

Build relationships

bj moore providence

BJ Moore, EVP & CIO, Providence: One piece of advice that has stuck with me over the years is around the importance of investing time and effort in building a solid professional network. Especially, building strong relationships during good times so that we have a way to lean on each other when times are hard or there is a crisis.

For me, this is one of the things I value most about ORBIE’s recognition and the ability to be part of the amazing community of CIOs they gather across the country. I benefit greatly as I get to learn from others and build connections that will help us all.

Strive for an average, not a balance

colleen berube zendesk

Colleen Berube, CIO & SVP Operations, Zendesk: Quite early in my career I was at an event where a woman CEO was speaking. When asked about how she managed being a CEO while raising her children, she shared that she thought of “work-life balance” as a batting average. Setting a goal of striking balance all the time is not realistic. Sometimes work will be demanding and require focus, and your family will need to support you. Other times you will need to focus on your family and work will have to give.

It’s important to be honest with yourself and make conscious decisions in both work and life. By looking at my career through this lens, I have found that it gives me power and confidence in making those choices and makes the day-to-day work a lot more realistic, manageable, and meaningful.

Express gratitude

christopher desautel bhhs

Christopher Desautel, SVP & CDO, Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Companies: In my career, I have had the good fortune to learn from many great leaders. Their influence, in both words and actions, has helped shape the leader I am today.

One piece of advice, or perhaps a realization based upon many experiences, was the importance of gratitude and using two very powerful words: “Thank you.”

This may sound trivial, yet these words give energy to others and are a force multiplier. In my experience, everyone has had help in achieving their success as a leader, regardless of their field of endeavor. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Recognizing this, and ensuring you express your gratitude to the many individuals who help you with an idea, a project, a new perspective, a late night of work, or even constructive criticism, is a key part of being an authentic leader.

A piece of advice that I have often passed on is “Every day, find someone to thank.” They are there; you just need to look.

Rent talent

rob dickson wichita ps

Rob Dickson, CIO, Wichita Public Schools: Early in my leadership journey when considering hiring for a position, my mentor Mark Evans said to me, “You rent talent. Understanding that the person could give you three good years and go on is still success. It is better to grow leaders than to bog staff down so that you retain them.”

I have held on to that conversation throughout my leadership journey; as a result, I have enjoyed watching my network of leadership grow as I see my staff grow to do bigger and better things.

Smile and introduce yourself

phil ventimiglia gus

Phillip Ventimiglia, Chief Innovation Officer, Georgia State University: The most impactful advice I ever received is to smile and introduce myself when I walk into a room.

Early in my leadership journey, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a rigorous one-week leadership class. I was the youngest in the class by far, with seasoned leaders from every industry represented. The program utilized intensive, regular, honest feedback from your peers. Given I was young and relatively inexperienced, I was very quiet at the start as I was extremely intimidated. As such, I was shocked that the feedback from my peers was that they thought that I was calculating and manipulating when they initially met me because I was not talking. However, once they got to know me their feedback was the exact opposite.

When I returned from the week, my team said the same thing. They all said that when they first met me, they were afraid of me! From that experience, I learned to smile and introduce myself whenever I am in a new situation which has helped me tremendously to quickly build bonds with new teams and people. Today, I get extremely positive 360 feedback about my approachability and ability to collaborate. That would not have happened if I received that tough but real feedback.

Be a giver

shelia anderson lmi

Shelia Anderson, EVP & CIO, Corporate Functions, Liberty Mutual: Some of the best advice that I’ve ever received was from my dad, encouraging me to treat all people with dignity and respect, to focus on my abilities, and to be a giver, focusing on helping others.

This advice was given to this 13-year-old girl growing up in the South, where stereotypes and biases were rampant – not really encouraging girls to pursue higher education. This was a time when I was faced with my first significant obstacle, a scoliosis diagnosis, and was frankly focusing on how different my life would be, and on all of the things that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish.

These imperfect moments have shaped me as a leader. This taught me to pivot my focus, be optimistic, get out of my comfort zone, and learn new skills. It also taught me to have empathy for others – as I experienced for a few years in my life what many with disabilities face for a lifetime.

I grew up in a lower-middle-class family, with deep values focused on serving others – how you show up in the lives of those around you matters. I believe that giving returns to you as a 10X factor. My legacy will be a builder of people, their careers, and exceptional teams, yielding exceptional business results. The connection and authentic leadership lead to higher engagement overall. I spend considerable time focused on coaching, mentoring, and investing in the next generation of our global and diverse workforce, leveraging and sharing these life lessons along the journey.

Culture and values matter

robin brown cargill

Robin Brown, CIO, Protein North America, Cargill: When I was early in my career, I was given a great piece of advice from a leader I looked up to and had such respect for. His advice was “Be your authentic self at all times.”

Always be confident in who you are and what you stand for. We all encounter situations where we are challenged and sometimes it can be very uncomfortable. But it’s in those situations we have to remember to lean in, be curious, and ask educated questions to provide a different perspective.

Your voice matters, so use your voice and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not the popular stance. You will always feel good about the outcome when you stick to the facts, keep emotions out of it, present the best version of you and never stray from your values.

Culture and values are incredibly important. Culture starts with your leadership and the example you set for your teams. Commit to the culture you want and be intentional in setting expectations for your team. When something changes and your values no longer line up with the culture, you have a decision to change the culture or move on to a new opportunity. But never change your values!

[ Learn how CIOs are speeding toward goals while preventing employee burnout in this report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services: Maintaining Momentum on Digital Transformation. ]

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.