Compassion, people skills crucial for CIOs

If you want to be an effective CIO, add compassion to your core competencies. Tech savvy and business skills are great, but connecting with employees could be your most important strength.

Are your employees happy? The way you maintain their emotional health could be just as important as the way you maintain your company's IT health.

Compassion and good people skills have become essential aspects of leadership, and morale maintenance has become a core competency crucial to company success. That was the undeniable theme of keynote speakers at BetterManagement Live's recent Worldwide Business Conference in Las Vegas. Two speakers, Tim Sanders and Kevin Freiberg, addressed this topic specifically in interviews with SearchCIO.com.

There's a direct relation between compassion and humanity and the retention of talent.
Tim Sanders
Leadership CoachYahoo! Inc.

"Emotional health has become a necessity not an option," said Sanders, author of Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends and leadership coach at Yahoo Inc. "There's a direct relation between compassion and humanity and the retention of talent."

Sanders said he believes there are a lot of unhappy employees out there right now just biding their time until the economy bounces back. When it does, he said, they'll find work elsewhere, and their bosses will be scrambling to fill the vacant positions.

A recent study from Meta Group Inc. also predicted that "greener pastures" syndrome could be a problem over the next three years as employees look for more money and a better work environment. To keep their best people from jumping ship, analysts suggested CIOs need to focus on issues such as morale and flexible hours.

So what makes employees happy? According to Freiberg, consultant and author of Guts! Companies that Blow the Doors Off Business-as-Usual, it's more than just free bagels on Monday or Hawaiian shirt Fridays.

Meaningful and noble work

Freiberg said employees want to know if the fruits of their work will deepen and broaden the relationship with customers and help the company move smarter, better and faster. Knowing that their work is meaningful and noble and there's a positive work culture are more important than compensation to most people.

"Every worker wants to see that what they do makes a difference," he said. It's up to the leaders -- in IT's case, the CIO -- to make sure all employees know their work is critical to the company's success.

"Help people see how the individual is part of something bigger -- part of a heroic cause and noble purpose," Freiberg stressed. "In the absence of good feedback, people will invent their own, and it's not always accurate."

Money isn't everything

Freiberg added that work/life balance has become "huge," especially in the last three years. "After September 11, we realized that family and personal life are important. Those are powerful retention factors."

Jeanette Slepian, president of Beaverton, Ore.-based BetterManagement, said emotional intelligence is a key for being a great leader because employees want more than just money. They want a leader who can connect with them.

"In the late '90s, the whole world revolved around stock options. I think we've all moved through that and realize that's not what it's all about," she said.

"It's about the work environment where talents are respected and a leader who has vision and confidence in the future. It's not just about facts and figures."

But given that CIOs inherently can be "facts and figures people," can they learn how to be good "people people"?

"You can absolutely learn [people skills], Slepian said, "but you have to want to. If you want to transition from a good manager to a good leader, you've got to read a breadth of people who've been leaders and try to understand what made them strong."

For more information

Check out our survival guide for hiring and retaining IT pros

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Coaching employees can help them -- and you

"You can add certain traits to your repertoire," said Bob Young, an organizational psychologist with consulting firm Hyde & Lichter Inc. in Milwaukee. He agreed that it can be tough for IT people who may be introverted to connect on an emotional level with others and motivate them to succeed. Difficult but not impossible -- and definitely important.

"Compassion gets more mileage out of people," Young added. Echoing what Yahoo's Sanders said, Young has found that when he coaches an employee who is having problems at work, he'll find the employee's performance is suffering from a lack of compassion at work or an ethical difference with others.

"You have to convey that you care about them as a person," he said.

And CIOs have to be able to convey IT's story to the rest of the company, said Freiberg, because too often IT workers feel like second-class citizens when they should feel like heroes.

"IT has a great, heroic story to tell in this economy," he said.

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