Sure, being a CIO means you understand technology and how to make it work. But as most CIOs will tell you, technical knowledge is just one cog in the leadership machine. Even in a good economy, a CIO must possess and practice the soft skills necessary to keep staff content and motivated. In a sputtering economy, “people” skills become critical.

Soft skills are a daily passion for Mark Polansky, an executive recruiter and managing director of IT Practice for Korn/Ferry International. TechRepublic contributor Matt Villano spent some time with Polansky recently in his New York City office, where the two discussed why people- and change-management skills are so critical for CIOs in today’s business environment.

A full boat of leadership skills
TR: Given the sinking economic climate in business and technology today, what would you say are some of the most important leadership qualities a CIO can display?

Polansky: While the precise order of priority varies from company to company and from one situation to the next, there are a number of diverse attributes that make up what I consider to be exemplary leadership on the CIO level. Leadership is that subjective, but easily discerned, quality that sets great CIOs apart from good CIOs. Leaders are visionary, passionate, inspirational, wise, charismatic, confident, influential, risk-taking, encouraging, positive, reassuring, creative-thinking, goal-setting, helpful, supportive, principled, honorable, fair, and open individuals. Leaders serve as role models. They stimulate ideas and coax the best from, and give recognition to, all those around them. Leadership is the very best career currency one can have.

No management quality greater than another
TR: What does “leadership” really mean for the CIO today? You mention a bunch of pretty broad characteristics and attributes when you talk about soft skills.

Polansky: That’s just it, you can’t pin one meaning down. Years ago, if you had asked me what the important “leadership” skills were in hiring an MIS director, I would have said they related to hardware and software management, or something like that. Today we have technology that’s sophisticated enough to handle that, so the meaning of CIO leadership becomes more of an oversight role, a role where someone must make the work environment comfortable for the people who manage those technologies. Human beings are complicated; systems are complex; networks are totally diverse. There’s not one single attribute that’s most important in running the IT ship.

Communication a key element
TR: I’ll buy that. But what you’re describing sounds a lot like a Human Resources position. At what point does a CIO’s role bleed into something similar to that of an HR director with a technological bent?

Polansky: The truth is that they’re very similar. Take communication, for example. The ability to intelligently articulate a strategy or a feeling in a clear and appropriate manner is an absolute must. Add in great listening skills, as well as strong abilities in negotiation, persuasion, and conflict resolution. This can encompass the written word, one-to-one verbal communication, group platform skills, and public speaking. Without these abilities, even the most heralded CIO just won’t get the job done. And this isn’t an IT issue at all.

Our members agree that people skills are critical

In a recent TechRepublic poll, “management and personnel management skills” was the qualification most cited by our members as key to a CIO’s success. Technology ran a close second. Change management, which Polansky includes in his definition of “soft skills,” and other business process experience ran third in the polling.

Team building skills necessary
TR: So communication skills are pretty important?

Polansky: Of course. But they’re no more important than, say, management skills. Proficiency in directing and supervising people, projects, resources, budgets, vendors, and other business partners is essential. Great managers are also expected to be accomplished team builders, motivators, coaches, and mentors. Setting priorities, assigning the appropriate resources against those priorities, and delivering projects on time and on budget are always seen as key requirements for a top CIO.

A more strategic position
TR: I get it. In this time of turmoil, would you say that an ability to manage change falls into this category of management skills?

Polansky: It doesn’t matter where change management falls, because it’s also one of those key “soft” skills. I talk about this all the time, because it’s a very common and important requirement for a CIO since most [executive] searches are not initiated to simply replace a CIO who has moved on. Far more of these assignments are undertaken for newly created positions in organizations that have never had a CIO or to significantly upgrade the post from a legacy set of responsibilities to a true CIO role. Changing the posture of the IT function from an operational necessity to a strategic element is the highest priority here. The ability to create change in the corporation’s operating and business processes, for both efficiency and competitiveness, is also commonly sought. Business process reengineering and continuous process improvement are on the minds of many CEOs, especially in tougher economic conditions.

TR: What about hiring and retention issues?

Polansky: Yes, that critical proficiency is often not high on the list of required attributes of a great CIO—and sometimes not at all. This ability is too often broached by me rather than my client, and then it is almost always added to the list if it was missing. I have a lot of respect for CIO candidates who spontaneously promote and substantiate their prowess in this area.

TR: Sounds to me like a good CIO is someone who can handle technology and people with the same degree of subtlety and nuance. A master of relationship building, if you will.

Polansky: Of course. This is what I’m talking about when I talk about leadership. Technology is important, but relationship building is everything. From the vantage point of the CEO or COO searching for a CIO, whether for a new position or a replacement, dysfunctional connections and low rapport between the CIO and other C-level officers and business unit leaders is a highly observable and all-too-common reason for failure. That expectation also extends to interactions with customers, suppliers and partners. Relationship building takes interpersonal communication to the next level by establishing and maintaining a strong understanding, rapport, bond, and trust between individuals.