One of the toughest parts of a CIO’s job is motivating his or her employees. But what is the key to motivation? Is it an innate tech leader trait? Are IT execs born with it, or is it learned? Most senior executives will tell you that some people have it and some do not.

CIOs need to motivate IT managers to inspire the laggards as well as the tech superstars so that they all turn out their best work. But while motivation is a powerful tool that can persuade, convince, and often help you achieve the impossible, it’s no simple feat.

Why motivating doesn’t come easy
CIOs have a more difficult time motivating managers than other business-unit leaders do because tech execs deal with so many issues, says Susan M. Adams, director of field-based learning and associate professor of management at Bentley College in Waltham, MA.

“IT departments always seem to be fighting uphill battles for funding and justifying projects,” Adams explained. “Once projects are funded, CIOs need to create acceptance and excitement across the organization to gain support for implementing the project. Even when a project is implemented, there are still problems around usage issues.”

CIOs must also cope with change-management concerns. “Continuous resistance to change takes a toll on employees,” explained Adams, adding that CIOs must provide coping skills to managers for handling the resistance to change. In the process of change, CIOs can motivate staff by helping them understand how valued their work is to the organization.

“A smart way to do this is with stories that describe how their work enhanced the company’s profitability or won an important customer,” she said.

Motivating forces and tactics
In technology companies, CIOs do have one piece of motivational leverage that other executive counterparts don’t—the lure of working with new technologies. This is a powerful force, as talented software developers, for example, want to be encouraged to exercise and develop their talents. The results will benefit everyone, as tech professionals will feel creatively fulfilled and the company will likely produce more innovative products.

However, that doesn’t mean placing undue stress on employees to discover new technologies or find solutions no one’s ever considered. The most common motivational mistake that tech leaders make is encouraging employees to “think out of the box,” asserts Dan Clark, a motivational speaker and president of Clark Success Systems in Salt Lake City.

“Instead of thinking out of the box, they should be thinking ‘in the box,’” he explained. “Motivation is about getting people to work within a system, not out of it. It’s about creating the right environment in which everyone has the same opportunity. Motivation is about encouraging passion, creativity, and imagination. It’s not about technology, but people. Technology is a tool used by people.”

Adams offers the following five tips for motivating employees:

  • Understand what makes your people “tick.” Some employees stay for the technical work; others want to build leadership skills; and there’ll always be a portion that only care about the paychecks. Although it can be time-consuming, CIOs have to investigate what motivates their managers and staff. “These are opportunities for discovering how someone thinks by listening to the questions he or she asks,” explained Adams.
  • Encourage downtime. Employees enjoy downtime with the CIO, as it’s an opportunity to build closer workplace bonds. They can learn more about the CIO’s interests and ask questions about company news, such as financial status or technology budgets.
  • Consider formal motivational programs. Once you have created the details of a training program, individually tailored arrangements will be more effective, suggests Adams. “Two common mistakes are made by CIOs. The first is holding the belief that ‘one size fights all’ in respect to motivational programs. Second, while this approach aligns interests with the company, it can stifle creativity and limit contributions from talented employees who would rather not be boxed in by rules.”
  • Apply the same standards to everyone. Do not cut a separate deal for individual employees, as this will quickly lead to someone feeling that they didn’t get a fair shake. That rare genius may require special treatment, but most people can be motivated by typical tools, such as rewards, recognition, and advancement.
  • Create clear leadership career paths for those that understand both their work and the company’s business interests. Employees with IT leadership aspirations should be encouraged to learn about business practices. “Since most IT people are experiential learners, they need to be included in meetings that allow them to learn what’s important to others,” Adam said. “The opportunity will motivate them.”

As Adams, and other experts point out, motivation is clearly a critical tool on several fronts, as it benefits both employees and the company, and plays into achieving business goals. While it’s a skill that sometimes takes months and often years to master, learning to motivate technical managers and staff is a worthwhile endeavor, as the rewards will add a whole new element of satisfaction to the CIO role.