Do you know what your job is? If someone approached you today and asked you to list your primary job objectives, how would you respond? Typical responses go something like this:
- NT Support Specialist
- SQL Database Designer
- UNIX System Administrator
- Java (or VB, or C++, or pick your language du jour) Application Developer
- Network Support Specialist
- IS Training Analyst
- LAN/WAN Design Engineer
Now what if someone asked you about your career plans and goals in your current position? How much thought have you given to why you are doing what you are doing, and what you hope to get out of it? For most of us techie types, the thrill is in the technology itself. Many of us would be playing with these toys whether we were paid to or not. However, as Maslov has taught us, sheer survival instincts do have a primal priority. The bottom line for many folks is that IT skills today are a marketable commodity in short supply. A better-than-average living can be earned in this trade. And one of the common goals for IT pros is to obtain even more technical skills, which should improve opportunities for promotion, which should improve opportunities for increased earning potential, which will ultimately allow for plenty of surfing time at www.retireearlyandkickback.com.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? George Lucas couldn’t have scripted it any better. If it really were that easy, then no one would be reading this column. The harsh reality is that technical skills alone don’t determine whether an individual is ready for a promotion to a level of higher responsibility and pay. Technical skills are important, but they are just the entry fee for getting in the race. Consider them the ACT or SAT scores of the IT marketplace. Many IT workers are experiencing the disillusionment of many college freshmen and sophomores who left home with good standardized test scores and returned home with low GPAs. You’ve put in your time and accomplished the tasks outlined in the job description, but the promotions are nowhere in sight. What is it actually going to take to make it to the elusive goal?
The missing element is not directly related to technical skill sets, business attire, or office politics. The missing element is the proper focus on the job. I’ve spoken with many gifted technicians who have lost their motivation because they reached a plateau and didn’t have the direction or inspiration to help guide them to the next level.
The quality and self-help gurus have been preaching for years that all individuals, families, and other organizational units need to start off with a mission statement. It should be concise and encapsulate the guiding principles of the person or the entity. Most companies have one now, but following the organization’s mission does not always help the individuals reach their personal goals. Something else is needed.
A good navigator would never start a long journey without a map to guide him. What today’s IT pro needs is a M.A.P. as the guiding principle that will provide the proper focus and enhance career growth. In this case, I’m talking about a Mantra for Accelerating Promotions (M.A.P.)—a short, six-word phrase that will always provide a shining light in a moment of doubt. Tedious multi-step plans and additional workbooks are the last things needed by today’s fast-paced IT industry. Proper focus can be immediately obtained by using the M.A.P. to answer the basic question, “What is my primary job objective?” – To Make My Boss Look Good. Now, that was important, so close your eyes and say it to yourself again. What is my job? To make my boss look good. What is my job? To make my boss look good. Now you’ve got the hang of it.
Let’s try to understand the simple logic behind this phrase. Managers initiate promotions. In more mature organizations, this happens during the standard annual review and career planning process. In smaller organizations, individual managers are intricately bound with identifying promotion candidates. Either way, the immediate manager’s input is vital in the candidate selection process. And let’s be real—this is a selection process. Every worker won’t be promoted every year. Some companies have percentage caps on promotions and some do not. But the bottom line is that only some of the candidates identified for promotions will actually receive them, regardless of the approval process or the organization.
How you can set yourself apart
So the trick becomes arming your manager with enough ammunition about your performance to make your promotion a foregone conclusion. How is this accomplished? Use the M.A.P. to guide you in your daily tasks and situations. And, as the great Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn would say, a solution will present itself.
It’s easy to start with your skills and job description. If you don’t know how to make widgets, then you will never be qualified to be a senior widget maker. The critical element many IT pros miss is considering your performance from your manager’s perspective. You know how to do your job, but have you ever thought what it takes to do your manager’s job? In many cases, technical folks have made a conscious career decision not to pursue a management opening because of the endless bureaucracy and “administrivia” bestowed upon them. Technical managers are accountable for the work of the team, so they at least have to pretend that they understand technology. But they also have to deal with budgets, e-mail, status reports, e-mail, project presentations, personnel issues, and then more e-mail. And that only gets them up to lunchtime.
It’s easy to see that technical managers are caught in the middle—having to motivate and manage the technicians who complete the “real” work and having to manage up to higher-level peers to make sure the department is adding value for the corporate mission. Managers will gravitate to employees who are competent and take the initiative to solve problems and anticipate the next problem—that’s what making your manager look good is all about.
As I said earlier, it all starts with your job description. This will form the foundation of your career pyramid. The most basic element to making your manager (and you) look good is being competent in your discipline. A programmer can accomplish this by being the first choice in every manager’s mind when that hot new development project comes up. A support person can accomplish this by being the key person that people in every other department ask for when they have a problem.
Human nature dictates the folks will take the path of least resistance to reach an objective. If you have the reputation for fixing problems, you will quickly become that path. Your manager looks good for “bringing along” a skilled team player. This is management utopia. If you can’t perform your most basic job function well, there is absolutely no way to properly support your career pyramid. No amount of “sucking up” or knowing the right people will be able to prop it up permanently. In today’s highly volatile free market economy, insufficient skills are sifted out quicker than gravel from a gold miner’s stream.
Setting yourself apart from the pack requires more than just meeting the requirements of the job. Today’s businesses are bombarded with endless issues and problems that require follow-up and solutions, and managers are expected to identify and solve them all. In IT shops, solving problems and providing high system availability is paramount. That’s a priority for everyone, support people and developers alike. But that’s just the tip of the manager’s iceberg.
Managers need to spend one-on-one time with their team members to build good relationships in hopes of preventing turnover. Upper management needs white papers and presentation material to continually prove that a group or a department is adding value. Business changes require strategy changes. Each strategy change impacts the technical architecture that is currently in place, and the IT group is expected to turn on a dime and absorb this change. Companies decide to downsize, merge, or absorb other companies. The impact on IT departments are usually not a major consideration in the business decision, but these decisions will have a major impact on the IT organizational structure and technical environment. New business strategies also spawn new development projects and system rollouts. These new projects have a way of coming up after the annual budget process and development plans have all been set. Borrowing from the teachings of Stephen Covey, these are all Quadrant I tasks that show up as fires each day for an IT manager to put out.
What’s the impact?
How does this impact you and your career? Plenty, for those who understand the trickle-down effect at work. Managers need to oversee the implementation of processes that will ensure problems will be resolved and systems will remain available, and they need to quickly react to all the interruptions described above. This is a daunting task. But remember, these same harried managers are also the ones who will identify promotion candidates from among their team members. The folks who can help solve problems, maintain system availability, and help their managers effectively deal with all the other emergency requests will be the prime candidates. This is also easier said than done—candidates who get the promotions will be the ones who can master each of those tasks simultaneously.
This type of mastery can be demonstrated in many ways. You can identify and document a workaround for a persistent problem, and then help train a more front-line support group to quickly solve the problem in the future and prevent unnecessary escalation. Working cooperatively with external departments and customers is crucial. The last thing a manager needs to do is spend valuable time “cleaning up” after simple miscommunications. Development of detailed project plans that leave no room for misinterpretation of the goal, the tasks, and the responsible groups will always make a manager look good.
Always remembering the M.A.P. will ultimately result in good career progress for you. It’s all in how you look at it. Try taking a walk in your manager’s moccasins. Would you recommend yourself for promotion? Are you making your manager look good? Are you trying to make his (or her) life a little easier? By taking the spotlight off yourself, you may discover a whole new attitude that will lead to new career possibilities.
Is the M.A.P. technique valid for you? Do you believe that making your boss look good is the key to being promoted? Tellus what your promotional key is and the steps to success.