The most-valued skills in IT

When Pittsburgh-area IT executives recently gathered to discuss their hiring needs, it took a while for anyone to begin talking about the technical expertise they wanted.

In fact, “for the first 15 minutes of the conversation, not one mentioned an IT skill,” says Jared Roberts, managing director of the IT industry network at the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Members of the IT Workforce Board instead said they want people who can work on teams, learn quickly and adjust to changing situations. They want people who understand business.

“The IT leader has to invariably deliver solutions that add measurable business value. If not, then the business discounts them,” says Steve Kendrick, president of Kendrick Executive Resources.

Business know-how tops most lists. “A good grasp of business and attention to business details are more important today than in the past,” says Stephen Pickett, president-elect of the Society for Information Management (SIM) in Chicago and vice-president and CIO at Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The ability to talk money is another high priority. IT managers need a greater understanding of costs, budgets and financial management issues, says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. They need to know about cost analysis and return on investment. “Most businesses tend to speak the language of money, and most IT people tend to be outside that circle,” she says.

That leads to a third skill: the ability to communicate. IT managers need to talk to business people, including those who sit on the board of directors. And they have to do so in everyday language, not technical jargon. “You really need to have the oral and written skills to get your ideas across,” says David Luce, president of SIM and CIO at Rockefeller Group International Inc. in New York.

IT managers need to learn how to manage in new ways, as companies expect them to work more often with other business divisions and across geographic distances. They’ll also have to know how to motivate people working halfway around the world. “Skills around building employee commitment and motivation are big time,” says Louise Axon, senior vice-president of leadership development at The Forum Corp., a Boston-based management consultant and training company.

In this age of offshoring and international business, global experience can give a manager a significant edge. Kate M. Kaiser, associate professor of IT at Marquette University in Milwaukee, says foreign-language skills, specifically Mandarin Chinese or Russian, are also helpful, as is global political awareness.

But none of this trumps the need to stay ahead of technology. Umesh Ramakrishnan, the Cleveland-based vice-chairman of executive search firm Christian & Timbers, says IT managers need strategic vision and insight more than ever. “The worst thing a CIO can do is implement a strategy that has to be changed again in 24 months,” he says.

Two other highly desired skills — leadership and the ability to learn — will help IT managers tie all those other talents together. “To me, the No. 1 capability has got to be leadership. I think that’s the most transferable of all of the skills they’re going to have to have,” says Bart Bolton, an Upton, Mass.-based facilitator for lifetime learning and the facilitator for SIM’s Northeast Regional Leadership Forum. “Leadership is the kingpin.”

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