Education

Career advice from the trenches

You can read all the career books and enlist professional counseling, but the best advice always comes from peers. Learn what TechRepublic members told columnist Bob Weinstein are the top factors in IT management and career success.

When it comes to managing your career, advice from the lofty pulpits of management consultants and HR pundits pales in comparison to the hard-earned wisdom of your peers.

That’s why I turned to real experts—TechRepublic members—for a column on job advice and career guidance. Here are pointers from your peers about what it takes to be a better manager, how to enhance critical communication skills, and other important lessons that CIO members have learned during their careers.

How to be a better manager
Managing staffs involves a lot more than just telling people what to do, said Lance Cancro, CIO at Cheetah Telecom. A tech leadership role requires participation, involvement, and empathy, he said.

“A mentor told me that the reputation I build for myself around results was transient and imperfect, while the integrity and compassion with which I treated my people can create a lasting imprint of my character with all of my stakeholders,” Cancro said.

Being a good manager also requires strong listening skills, according to another tech leader.

Ray Costello, formerly VP of IT for Donald Bruce & Company in Chicago, said, “Old bosses can be vast repositories of great managerial advice.” Costello learned a powerful lesson from a prior boss who taught him the simple but elusive concept of "closing the loop."

“Whenever you pass off a task you never completely pass off the responsibility to it,” Costello said. “You must follow up and see that it was completed. Ever since I accepted this concept, I have seen others pass off tasks like time bombs to ‘gotchas.’ By accepting the concept of closing the loop, you establish a partnership between you and all the other guardians of the task.”

Member Nick D’Apice added that management “should be there to listen and remove impediments to your success.”

Robert Iorizzo agreed, pointing out that listening to mentors can be very beneficial.

“The most poignant one-line piece of information ever given to me by my mentor was simply ‘What's important to my boss is important to me,'” Iorizzo said.

While this advice may seem like common sense, Iorizzo said he’s lost count of the times he’s met people who think they know better and ignore the wishes of a CEO or other corporate leaders.

“While we are all experienced professionals with opinions and beliefs, in the end it's all about following the team leader's vision or respectfully providing feedback to help redefine that vision,” he said.

A big mistake many tech leaders make is thinking that they have to be the best technologist on staff in order to be a good manager. Steve Williams, systems director of the Health Clinic, PLC, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, stressed that technical skills alone don’t cut it.

“Don’t devote 100 percent of your time polishing your technical skills and neglecting everything else,” Williams said. A former manager once told him that while his analytical skills were good, they wouldn’t help foster his career path.

“To make real progress in your career, you need to realize that being right is not always enough. You have to put yourself in the other guy's place and think about how it feels to him," Williams said. "Your logic-driven approach scares some people because it bombards them with facts. You need more subtle influencing skills.”

Tech leaders can never communicate too much
A key element to successful management is continually honing and improving communication skills, as several members strongly advised.

Leonard E Rogol, of SMI Steel Inc. in Birmingham, advocated using the following communication media: face-to-face contact, telephone, and e-mail. Again, this advice may seem obvious, but Rogol explained that many technical professionals find it difficult to deal with issues on a one-to-one basis.

“We're busy and overworked and we’d rather shoot off an e-mail than playing phone tag or walking to someone’s office,” he said. “We take the easy way because it’s more efficient. But we neglect the human factors of communication.” Facial expressions and body movements, voice inflection, and probably most importantly, the tone of our communication all play a role in good management. “A great deal of goodwill can be destroyed by a hastily dispatched e-mail,” he noted.

No one can direct a career for you
When it comes to reaching higher and better management roles, several members made it clear that ownership of career advancement is solely in the hands of the tech manager and no one else.

As Richard Dorko explained, advancement can’t be left to the next level of bosses.

“I tell this to anyone who stagnates or feels I am responsible for their advancement,” Dorko said. “While a boss should look out for opportunities and grow employees as much as possible, employees need to be aggressive in moving their careers along. When management talks about employees with management potential, they talk about those who have made it well known they want advancement. Those who don't make it known aren't considered eager and therefore appear incapable of taking on the job.”

Advancement comes with increased experience and exposure to new scenarios and challenges, according to another TechRepublic member.

“You don't stay in one job too long or management will begin to think that's all you can do,” warned Don Carlson, who recommends job moves, or at least increased job responsibilities, every few years.

For Linda Chapman, a tech leader at Curative Rehabilitation, Inc. in Green Bay, WI, honesty is a key career attribute that can help advance a tech professional. A former boss once told her that it’s always best to take action when something goes awry.

“When you make a mistake, go to your boss before he/she comes to you, and admit it. Everyone makes occasional mistakes,” said Chapman, who added that tech leaders who follow this advice actually demonstrate courage and earn respect.
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