With the champagne, parties, and excitement of the calendar turning behind us, it's a great time of year to consider your career progression. Whether you're a recent university graduate or an IT manger considering a move up the ranks, here are three suggestions to prepare for the top echelons of IT leadership.
1: Develop horizontally
Rather than suggesting you expand your waistline as I did in 2013, developing horizontally refers to your content expertise. In many IT roles, it's tempting to specialize in a very narrow niche, whether that's a particular technology or perhaps one element of your company or industry. As an IT leader, you'll be expected to draw on a wide variety of subject matter and rapidly assess new, old, and emerging technologies that you may have never encountered.
If you're a master developer or a renowned codeslinger, try your hand at a business analyst role and help business users explain what they want a particular project or technology to accomplish. If you're deep in middle management and haven't considered coding since the COBOL days, create a quick "Hello world" application using some of the new development technologies, or ask a developer or enterprise architect to give you a quick rundown on what's current. Similarly, if you've worked primarily with the supply chain area of your business, spend time with the marketing or sales department. In addition to building your knowledge, you'll see ways various functions can enhance and augment each other, making you an even more effective leader.
You should plan to develop yourself outside of the technical realm altogether as well. If you're not already doing so, start reading the general business press or a political column or two. Take up a new hobby that's physically demanding or that stimulates the artistic aspects of your brain. Rarely are leaders in any discipline pure content experts in the discipline, and the best ones can speak intelligently about emerging mobile development standards, bond accounting, and current political events.
2: Get assessed
Regardless of where you are in your career, get third-party feedback about your strengths and weaknesses and use that to formulate a development plan. This feedback should come formally and informally. On the formal side, your organization may already have a performance review process, but that can be augmented through "bottoms up" evaluations whereby your staff and team evaluate you, or through external consultants who observe your performance and may even help with your development plan.
You should combine this formal feedback with informal mentoring from two or three sources, ideally including someone who works with you but is further along in his or her career, as well as someone who knows you and interacts with you but is not directly in your reporting structure.
Keep two factors in mind when seeking feedback. First, look for consistent themes. If you repeatedly hear that you don't manage time well, that's feedback you should act upon. If only one of your sources highlights a behavior that your other sources don't agree with, there's no use expending too much time on that behavior, even if it's personally bothersome or interesting. Second, it's usually better to build upon and refine your strengths than to spend significant time addressing weaknesses. A significant effort toward correcting a weakness might move you from completely incapable to merely incompetent, but a focus on an existing strength might be just what you need to achieve excellence. Most leaders are marked by excellence in a few areas rather than mere competence in several areas.
3: Ask rather than hope
Most high-level leaders and executives I've met have made their goals and objectives well known. They don't need to shout from the rooftops that they want to be boss, but they'll often tell their trusted advisors and the people they report to that they'd like to move up the chain.
Let's say you have two equally skilled people to fill a job. One has quietly slaved away in the trenches without ever mentioning dreams of more advanced roles, and the other has been asking your advice on how to move up the ladder and making it known that is her career objective. Who are you likely to promote?
IT may be more of a meritocracy than some other industries and brains and competence are usually self-evident, but simply toiling away and hoping your efforts will one day be recognized will never get you into the upper echelons. While this might seem like distasteful politicking, if you don't toot your own horn once in a while, no one will do it for you.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.