Becoming an IT leader is important to many IT professionals. Below are a few highlights on strategies that can help you move your career in that direction. These highlights are based on my own experience, but also come from working directly with several IT VPs and CIOs at different companies.
Do not settle for the status quo. One of the best ways to move up in the corporate world is simply to be noticed. Instead of leading a team to the point of what is expected, strive to break through ceilings and bring something that has never been seen. I like to think of it as the Google mentality. Always work on something that goes above and beyond what is asked in a way that benefits the business, or saves money or time. From a team-leader point of view, stress to your team the importance of coming up with new ideas to change the way people work and to take a look at old processes that can be improved.
Build Deep Business Connections
This is a two-sided piece of advice because these business connections should be internal to your company as well as external. Internally, if you have a sound understanding with key business individuals, you will have a better idea of how to help them and will have a wide variety of leaders to have your back as you move up the chain of command. Sometimes having the relationship is just as important as producing great products for a company. Everyone wants to move up within their own company and sometimes the best way to do that is with ideas deployed at other companies. That means participating in other groups and industry networks. Create connections with the people you speak to frequently. This will help you come up with different ways to help your own company. On top of that, you never know when someone might reach out to you with a great opportunity.
One of the most overlooked facets of an IT leader is their ability to improve others. IT leaders are often looked at as innovators, but the ones who get noticed are the ones who have a wealth of employees constantly knocking out great results. Many HR and IT leaders, when doing performance reviews, will label individuals as being unable to achieve beyond a certain level. This usually occurs when the employee’s people skills are lacking. Soft skills count!
Break Through Disaster
An IT VP once told me that the best project manager isn’t one who manages the good times, but the person who plans for the fires and puts them out with ease. I think this goes for everyone, not just project managers. Nothing derails a career like a fire that you can’t put out. If you’re in the middle of a disaster and come out on top, it will make you look that much better in the eyes of the people holding your career in their hands.
If you think you have what it takes, stick your neck out there for some of the more high-risk, high-reward projects or teams. Maybe at your company there is a group that gets to experiment with new technologies. Try to get in there and take it by the reins. Maybe there is a group that has been underperforming and everyone knows it. You could go for manager of that group and try to turn things around. Create a plan and tell leadership how you can fix it. If you can transform something small into something big, in a good way, management will notice.
Diversify Your Roles
You can probably get up to a VP level by staying in the same organization structure and becoming excellent at it, but to get to that next level it helps to have a broad range of experience in different types of information technology, and even some business experience wouldn’t hurt. The best leaders are able to rely on a broad range of past experience and lessons learned. If you’re vying for a leadership position, variety counts. (Get some resume writing tips that will help in 4 CIO Resume Fails and How to Strike the Right Balance.)
Take Heart in Future Direction
One of the biggest lessons I learned early in my career was to get into right-place-at-the-right-time situations by learning what the plan was a year or two ahead of time and working toward getting into one of those roles. The latest and greatest efforts of the IT strategy are some of the positions that have the most visibility and sometimes have some of the most weight when it comes to handing out promotions. If you hear that the goal is to start moving to the cloud in the next three years, take a look at your current technology and see if it can be a pilot program to put it in the cloud in the next six to 12 months. If it goes well and you stay on top of it, leadership will look at you as a thought leader.
Chat with Leadership
Once you start moving up the chain of command, it becomes more and more about who you know. One of the best things you can do for your career is simply build a relationship with leadership. Go to the charity golf outings, the Christmas parties, the social events and make it a point to speak to the leaders for a few minutes. Address them by name and keep it cordial. Eventually when you walk past them in the hallways, you can stop and chat for a few minutes and start expressing ideas. Eventually if all is going well, try to ask a leader to be a mentor. The experience and the relationship can go a long way.. (Get more tips in How to Become an IT Director: Tips from the Top.)