How has the role of the IT leader changed in current times?

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IT leaders have never been more essential to the success of any organisation – or had more demands heaped upon their shoulders. So how is the role changing? And what are the skills required to step up to the challenge?

Elevating the role

For IT leaders to be able to deliver effectively on this expanding remit, they have to be sure they are positioned correctly within the organisation. In other words, they can no longer be simple followers of business strategy who are reactive to demands from elsewhere.

Dr Ruth Massie, Senior Lecturer in Cyber Resilience Leadership at Cranfield University’s School of Management, comments: “One of the worst things that ever happened to IT was when it became one of those departments you bought services from, as opposed to them being with you on the journey, going places with the organisation. Because they were just service providers, others in the organisation would think, ‘Oh well, I can just buy it cheaper, or I can buy it direct,’ and I think some of that mind-set still hangs around some of the older companies.”

That, of course, has even led to the threat of ‘shadow IT’, where individuals and functions within a business bypass the IT department and source their own tech solutions, frequently from the cloud; or, taken to the extreme, the entire IT function being outsourced or abolished. However, Ruth believes that, by playing a more proactive and business-focused role, IT leaders can make themselves essential to business success.

Developing new skills

In order to thrive in such a situation, however, the skill set required is vastly different from the days when a strong reliance on deep technical knowledge was enough to make someone successful in the role. In other words, it’s about so much more than the tech itself.

Ruth tells her students that this means IT leaders have to act as translators. They not only need a good understanding of the technology – even if they aren’t from a deep tech background – but also a clear idea of the challenges facing the rest of the business and how technology can help them to improve, function by function. “So that means actually being a translator for what’s going on in the business to IT, and from IT back into the business. You don’t necessarily have to know all the ins and outs in detail, but you do need to have a clear idea of what it is that each department is trying to achieve.”

Preparing the leaders of the future
A lot of the answers lie in ensuring the IT leaders of the future are better prepared for the newer elements of the role. One piece of advice from Ruth is to get out of the IT department entirely and spend some time doing another role, in order to really develop that deeper understanding of the wider business. “Previously, if you were really good at technology you would be selected for a leadership role,” she says. “Whereas now I think it’s about: do you have customer service skills, do you have the internal consultancy skills, and so on? In other words, that ability to understand the business as your customer and to work with them as if they’re a customer.”

Dr Ruth Massie is a Senior Lecturer in Cyber Resilience Leadership at Cranfield School of Management, read Ruth's biog.

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