The CIOs of 2020 will lead with ‘soft skills’

IMG_2736 From Left: Nuclear Regulatory Commission CIO Darren Ash, DHS Deputy CIO Margie Graves, DOT CIO Richard McKinney, EPA CIO Renee Wynn and SBA CIO Renee Macklin.

Come 2020, a hard-nosed technical expertise is not going to cut it for federal IT leaders. Tomorrow’s IT leaders and the people who fill their vacancies are going to require softer, more-personable skills like the ability to communicate and putting customers first, a group of current federal chief information officers said Tuesday.

The importance of cybersecurity, cloud, big data and other federal IT trends won’t disappear in the next five years, and there’s no telling what others will emerge. But Renee Wynn, the acting CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency, told an audience at an ACT-IAC panel Tuesday on next generation competencies in federal IT that there’s more to making a federal IT leader than technical skills.


“We are all in demand on cybersecurity, but if cybersecurity specialists can’t communicate to me that we’ve got a serious problem, then how are we going to solve the problem?” Wynn said. “That communication piece becomes pretty key.” Wynn referred to qualities like communication as “soft skills,” ones that are less teachable and not printed on a typical resume but key to any IT specialist hoping to manage and lead effectively.

At the Small Business Association, a major mission is serving small business customers through loan programs and others. And while the SBA’s IT infrastructure and operations are certainly important, CIO Renee Macklin said IT leaders have to also understand the customers and the business as well.

“My expectation is that my staff can do two things: Have technology skills but also have business skills,” Macklin said. “Understand what the business is doing, understand where the businesses are going…We can’t give technical solutions if we don’t understand the business.”

Even within the Department of Homeland Security, an agency strongly rooted in top-notch cybersecurity IT, Deputy CIO Margie Graves said the “role of the CIO is changing to that of broker, facilitator, customer liaison, more business acumen and less of the technical delivery, because the technical delivery will be done through partners, and that’s a good thing.” Graves said she expects the pipeline of incoming IT leaders for DHS to reflect that.

The Department of Transportation is currently recruiting a cadre of IT experts to lead it into the future. CIO Richard McKinney said he is looking for balance in his next IT leaders, rather than those who might be the top of their classes or the lead experts in a given technical field.


“Specialists have their place; I wouldn’t deny that. But from a manager’s standpoint, I’m looking for people who are ‘comprehensivists,’ people who can understand the technical side, understand the business side and understand the political side,” McKinney said. “I think what makes a great manager is someone who can sit down in front of a customer and put themselves in that person’s shoes; see it from their point of view.”

So, McKinney is investing in those qualities, targeting employees with upside for leadership rather than those who fit immediately as more of a temporary fix. That might entail some training along the way, something he said other managers often stray from, but what he credits as a key to transforming the city of Nashville, Tennessee’s IT operations during his six years there before joining DOT.

“People say ‘Well if you train them, you’ll lose them,'” McKinney said of those fearful managers. “But what if you don’t train them and they stay?”

What it comes down to, Macklin said, is a paradigm shift in the way IT operates — one of more flexibility focused on service.

“In the days past, we usually would have a lot of folks who would just say no” to a customer with a unique problem, she said. “What we’re talking about really is thinking outside of the box. You do need a technology person, but the technology person has to have the soft skills to…find an alternative and deliver. Basically what we need to be able to say is ‘I get and understand what you want. Let me go back and find out how technically I can deliver that to you.'”

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