Charisma often gets a bad rap in technical circles. It's perceived as the sizzle without the steak, or the "empty suit" who shakes the hands and kisses the babies, but underneath it all has no idea what he or she is talking about.
In IT we often evaluate our peers and managers by their technical acumen, and anyone who doesn't make the cut is dismissed as incapable. However, these "soft skills" can be critically important, although they're rarely bundled with deep technical competence, requiring IT leaders to evaluate where to deploy their charismatic leaders vs. their strongest technicians.
Increasingly, IT is not solely about technical competence — it's also about an ability to effect change, convince others of a strategic direction, and influence peers in a variety of other business units and external entities. Beyond a reasonable working knowledge of the technologies at play, these types of roles require a very different set of skills that fall under the broad umbrella of charisma.
Evaluate the role, then the person
Like many professions, IT is often guilty of promoting people based on their performance in their current job, and placing them into a leadership position in which they're poorly equipped to succeed. We'd laugh at the suggestion of dropping a great HR manager into a lead Objective C developer role, yet we'll routinely do the converse, taking a star technical resource and dropping them into a leadership role without a second thought.
Evaluate roles to determine whether a charismatic leader is the right fit, and also take the time to determine if a role that was once filled by a single person could be more effectively filled if its responsibilities were divided. The classic example is project/program managers for large initiatives. Part of the job is very detailed, technical project management, and the other part is the charismatic skillset: motivating participants, working with stakeholders, and carefully managing the various disasters that regularly occur without spooking sponsors. There's no shame in dividing these responsibilities, since it's rare that a single person possesses both skillsets with the competence required to deliver a large-scale project successfully.
Take a look at your own skillset
As an IT leader, it's worth assessing your own skillset. You've likely acquired some level of charisma as you've advanced through the technical ranks, or perhaps you were brought in for your people skills and find yourself struggling to keep up with the technology. In either case, while building basic competence in both areas is required, take the time to hone your strengths rather than spending frustrating years trying to turn a weakness into a mere basic competence.
If you lack technical competence, find a subordinate who can quickly articulate the pros and cons of various technical decisions and distill the nuances into an understandable summary. If you find yourself dreading discussions with an overbearing CMO or hard-driving CFO, engage the services of a more charismatic manager to join you in those meetings. This person may become regarded as the "face" of IT in your stead, even if he or she merely handles the relationships while you do the heavy lifting. Should this scenario develop, you may need to consider a different role, or get coaching to improve your executive presence.
We're all in the relationship business
A favorite quip in consulting circles is that "we're in the relationship business." While certainly true in organizations that essentially "sell" smart people, IT has entered the same role in many companies. Rather than a group that quietly toils away in a darkened server room, IT staff at all levels are increasingly expected to "sell" ideas internally, defend technical and strategic decisions, and take command when something goes awry.
Considering the requirements of key positions in your IT organization, as well as the importance of charisma in filling those roles, will go a long way toward making your organization successful in this environment.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.