How to Prepare a First-Time IT Team Leader

Every IT team needs a leader. Here’s how to select and train a candidate who will meet goals and spur innovation.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

May 3, 2023

5 Min Read
Artur Marciniec via Alamy Stock

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work,” observed Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi.

One of the most challenging tasks any CIO faces is finding the right person to head an IT project team and then preparing that leader for success.

Ben Askin, CIO with tax automation firm Vertex, says he looks at two fundamental qualities when considering new IT team leaders. “It boils down to the love they have for the job and how they approach the new role in which IT plays today,” Askin observes. “These leaders are the ones who are willing to be coached and pragmatically embrace feedback.”

As innovation accelerates, CIOs should look for IT team leaders who have an innovation-first mindset and possess a unique perspective for achieving ROI, says Ram Palaniappan, CTO at IT talent and staffing services firm TEKsystems. “IT team leaders must also have a start-up mentality, meaning they can create multi-skilled teams that can adapt to any disruptions.”

Curiosity and Agility Traits

CIOs should look for individuals who are curious, advises Lauren Kenney, CEO of business advisory firm Lakuna.“Curious leaders ask questions and consistently seek to expand their knowledge,” she explains. “They don’t rely on the status quo and have a continuous improvement mindset.” Kenney also suggests looking for candidates who have shown that they’re eager to embrace change and enjoy working on complex problems.

One of the most important attributes a new IT team leader should have is an agile leadership style that demonstrates flexibility, collaboration, and a commitment to continuous improvement, says Gary Arora, a managing director at Deloitte Consulting. “Agile leaders adapt quickly to circumstances and encourage experimentation and risk-taking,” he states. “They prioritize the delivery of value to customers and are willing to pivot or change direction when necessary to achieve this goal.” Meanwhile, a commitment to ongoing learning and development signifies a willingness to embrace change and innovation, Arora says.

“Part of what makes a technology leader adaptable is their willingness to collaborate, ask questions to understand the problem they’re trying to solve and, I think most importantly, resist the temptation to overhaul every existing project and process on day one,” says Gill Haus, CIO at Chase.

An effective team leader is skillful in facilitating discussions among team members, clarifying viewpoints, and drawing positive closure of discussions, says Kurt Motamedi, a strategy and leadership professor at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School.

Most IT teams consist of experts, each grounded in their own specific expertise. “A team is most effective when viewpoints are presented in a collaborative fashion and the team leader can acknowledge different views and expertise while driving toward a synergistic conclusion,” Motamedi explains.

An IT leader candidate should also show signs of team-building skills. Building relationships fosters communication and influence, which are vital to becoming an impactful IT leader, says Jeremy Rafuse, IT, and digital workplace head at software development firm GoTo. “You may have great ideals and a vision that will break barriers, but if you can’t communicate and influence your staff and stakeholders, you won’t get very far.”

IT Leader Training Basics

Rafuse believes that CIOs should adopt a dynamic IT leader training strategy. “Every individual requires a different level of guidance or oversight,” he says. “In many cases, businesses can equip their new leaders with training sessions and details of their responsibilities in the first few weeks and course-correct as the leader discovers questions or challenges.”

A new team leader should also be shown how to facilitate conversations with colleagues possessing diverse viewpoints spanning technologies, user and customer perspectives, product and service features, costs, and profits. “These competencies are often developed over time, and robust training along with effective mentoring can be critical to speed up new team leaders’ development and effectiveness,” Motamedi explains.

A novice leader also must build partnerships with business leaders in areas such as HR, finance, production, and services to understand their unique needs and pain points. On the job training in the form of attending department team meetings can bring the new IT leader into direct contact with department heads and end users. “It’s an easy way to both capture challenges these departments are facing while also learning about their roles and operations,” Lakuna’s Kenney suggests.

Learning Is a Constant Process

IT’s role will continue evolving as new technologies and markets emerge. “IT leaders must adapt and develop new skills as expectations change,” Kenney says.

Always remember that learning is a constant process. “New leaders should be encouraged to participate in industry forums and conferences, support networking within your company, and allow your teams the time to learn,” Kenney advises.

“There isn’t a point when a leader is finished developing -- it’s a constant process of learning, evolving, making mistakes, and figuring out team dynamics,” Chase’s Haus says. “A good leader knows that they don’t have all the answers and encourages their teams to work together to find the right answers.”

Finally, as the new IT leader completes projects and streamlines processes, it’s important to acknowledge positive results as they appear. “No matter how small, celebrating a novice leader’s success and milestones can help build confidence and reinforce the value of the IT leader’s contributions,” Deloitte’s Arora explains.

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About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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