Why the Best Technology Leaders Are Broadening Their Skill Sets

Sushil Kumar
Published 03/20/2024
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Technology Leaders Broadening Their SkillsetTechnology permeates every sector. As such, it is essential for technical leaders to master strategic skills beyond pure technical expertise. Collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills can help leaders scale innovation and lead large, cross-functional teams. Leaders also need rigorous analytical abilities to make decisive trade-offs and a business-focused mindset to drive growth. A combination of soft skills, technical depth, business acumen, and product vision is imperative for technology leaders who drive transformational programs that meet customers’ needs and future-proof their organizations. Tech leaders are being asked to think beyond technical skills and take on more business and leadership challenges and considerations. While deep technical expertise is still foundational in these roles, broader capabilities are a must for effective leadership.


New leadership landscapes

The days of deep expertise in a narrow domain are rapidly disappearing. As technological innovations and changes continue at unprecedented rates, it is critical for leaders to learn new skills to stay on top of emerging technology trends. There is also an increased convergence of technologies, leading to more complex and integrated systems and architectures. This requires tech leaders to possess the skills necessary to coordinate across disciplines and manage organizational and operational changes. In Deloitte’s 2023 Global Technology Leadership Study, tech executives were asked what skills will be critical for leaders in the next few years. Non-technical (or soft) skills like leadership, problem-solving and decision-making, relationship skills, and creative and innovative thinking were ranked the highest.

Leaders are also expected to effectively manage not only their teams, but customer needs as well. Shorter product life cycles have led to a low customer tolerance for quality issues or delays, requiring tech leaders to have substantial expertise in quality assurance, customer service, and stakeholder management. Diversity is also a highly prized asset for increasingly cross-functional development teams. Leaders are being asked to manage teams with diverse skill sets, backgrounds, and ages, which requires management skills to foster collaboration and productivity across different groups. A recent McKinsey report found that human-centered aspects of leadership, which included being a good role model, inspiring others, and developing people, were the most essential elements of leadership culture. Additionally, leaders who effectively establish, communicate, and support team vision and goals are more successful at creating high-performing teams, according to a recent Dale Carnegie study.



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Seven skills of strong leaders

While the specific balance of skills required by tech leaders will vary slightly depending on the company and their roles, they can be grouped into seven categories:

  1. Strategic thinking. Understand the big picture, including the organizational goals and challenges, and align technology solutions with business objectives. This means constantly looking ahead and envisioning how technology can create advantages for the business, rather than relying on past models, and engaging in long-term planning and forecasting.
  2. Technical expertise. Have a deep knowledge and hands-on experience with the current technologies, architectures, and development processes relevant to the industry. Strong technical expertise provides leaders with the ability to evaluate technical feasibility and potential trade-offs.
  3. Execution management. Develop skills in planning, coordinating, and managing all aspects of project delivery. This includes budgeting, resource allocation, scheduling, and risk management.
  4. Team leadership. Tech leaders can hire, motivate, and develop high-performing technology teams and cultivate collaboration and accountability. No matter how brilliant, any strategy relies on people to execute it.
  5. Stakeholder management. Build relationships with key stakeholders, including vendors and other teams, with effective communication skills, business acumen, and an understanding of their needs. Spend time with the sales, finance, and marketing teams and attend business planning sessions and budget meetings.
  6. Innovation. Strong leaders view technology as a door to new opportunities and capabilities. Stay on top of technology trends and apply emerging solutions to the business or teams’ problems. Rather than looking to the past for answers, remain future-focused, constantly looking ahead to see how new technology creates advantages.
  7. Agility and adaptability. Be ready to adapt and adjust plans and priorities as challenges arise. On an organizational level, promote an agile and iterative approach to development wherever possible. Agile leadership emphasizes collaboration, a focus on the user, and comfort with ambiguity.

Building strong leaders

Developing and keeping strong tech leaders require support from the organization as well as initiative and willingness from the leaders themselves. Successful leaders concentrate on growth, develop a deeper understanding of the business and industry, regularly upskill, and even take finance, marketing, and business courses to better understand how decisions are made. They also build relationships with internal and external stakeholders using soft skills such as active listening to understand their goals and perspectives. These leaders remain focused on outcomes to translate technology into business value.

Assessment plays a crucial role in supporting and fostering stronger leadership for companies. Behavioral interviews, 360-degree performance reviews, and assessing potential can help identify individuals who could make strong leaders. Invest in formal leadership and mentorship training for existing and potential leaders to help develop and improve these skills. Coaching and training to promote inclusive cultures are also essential, as are ongoing support, technical training, and feedback. Tech leaders can shadow executives or other vital investors to equip themselves with blended skill sets and adopt an agile leadership model, which emphasizes collaboration and agility.


Blending business and tech

Influential tech leaders are critical to every organization, and they are expected to weave business and customer needs with deep technological expertise. Many organizations have found success under blended-skills leadership, including several tech giants. In early 2023, Susan Wojcicki stepped down as the CEO of YouTube after nine years. She had a broad background and diverse skill sets, even before she took charge of the world’s biggest video-sharing website. Wojcicki was Google’s 16th employee, its first marketing manager, the progenitor of AdSense, and ran Google’s video service before pushing for the company’s 2006 acquisition of YouTube. Her time at Google gave her skills and experience beyond technical expertise, but so did her education. Wojcicki studied history and literature at Harvard before receiving a master’s degree in economics and an MBA.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s current CEO, has worked for the company since 1992 and held many leadership roles before stepping up to head the company in 2014. In more than 30 years with the company, he served as vice president of Microsoft’s business division, led the online services division’s R&D team, and was executive vice president of the cloud and enterprise group, which was responsible for the Azure cloud platform and SQL server database. With a degree in electrical engineering, master’s degrees in computer science and business administration, and an extensive background at Microsoft, Nadella’s technical and business knowledge is deep. Both Nadella and those who know and work with him place a high value on his soft skills. In a 2014 Wired article, colleagues and coworkers praise Nadella’s grace and thoughtfulness, describing him as a collaborator who seeks to understand and connect with people. “I would say the source of all innovation is what is the most humane quality that we all have, which is empathy,” Nadella told the Harvard Business Review in a 2021 interview.

Because of the integral role technology plays across every facet of nearly every business, it is essential that the capabilities of technology leaders expand beyond technical expertise and into business, strategy, and human behavior. Without these blended capabilities, leaders struggle to meet the increasing breadth, complexity, and pace of technology change and adoption. Many of the most successful technical leaders have combined their diverse backgrounds and skill sets with technical knowledge and strategic vision to deliver the large-scale innovations that are now household names. The ability to merge a variety of technical, business, and leadership skills distinguishes those who can navigate complexity and drive strategic transformation. Developing these blended skills is crucial for technology leaders looking to create a real impact within their organizations and beyond.


About the Author

Sushil Kumar is a technology program manager and digital transformation expert with decades of experience in leading and scaling state-of-the-art technology solutions in the defense, banking, insurance, and airline industries. A well-recognized thought leader, he is currently managing large technology projects for county government organizations in the greater Los Angeles area. Kumar holds a Master of Technology degree and received his MBA degree at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Global Indian Award – 2023. Connect with Sushil Kumar at trinetra5@hotmail.com or on LinkedIn.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.