Don’t let the deepening recession kill your spirit. Here’s how to get ahead and stay ahead in what’s proving to be the most tenuous work environment in decades.

It’s taken many years for CIOs to get beyond the decades-old “Career Is Over” label. Now that CIOs have (largely) proven their worth to senior management, they are being hit with the budget axe. In this economy, a company may quickly outsource a high earner to boost the bottom line when business turns grim. “It’s a short-term view right now for most companies,” says Wayne Mitchell, who places senior IT roles for executive search firm Stanton Chase. “2009 is all about cash and survival.”

Lately, executive recruiters have been telling me that more and more CIO resumes are showing up on their desks. How do you avoid being a name on a sheet of paper? True, some layoffs are simply unavoidable. But if you have polished relationship skills and a sharp eye on the business, it’s time to show your stripes — before you’re shown the door.

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1: Be proactive, not reactive

This is not the time to hide behind your office door and pore over spreadsheets and project plans. Get out there and meet with your colleagues in the business to determine how you can better serve them, cut costs, and support business-driving activities. If you think you’re going to need to shave your budget by another 10 percent in a few months, do it now to avoid greater cuts later on. Your financial responsibility will also bode well with those at the top.

2: Get creative with your budget

It’s all about the bottom line right now. Budgets may be boring, yet those who become budget and financial-planning experts will come out on top. Do you have a financial expert on your staff who can offer a fresh perspective? Think about how you can keep costs down without jeopardizing critical business-building projects. Perhaps an implementation can be delayed by six months or sourced differently, instead of shuttered altogether.

3: Get back to the basics…

With IT budgets getting slimmer by the day, CIOs may have to forgo some exciting plans for innovation and instead focus on mastering the fundamentals of IT leadership, including change management, people management, and vendor and partner relationships, according to Brinley Platt, chairman of, a London-based coaching, training, education, and research firm.

4: …But continue to innovate

Just because budgets are tight doesn’t mean you should give up on innovation altogether. This is a good time to research what new technologies are coming down the pike, so that when budgets are looser, you can quickly capitalize on them. As well, look for small ways to keep the innovation going. Web 2.0 initiatives, such as social networking applications for knowledge sharing and collaboration, don’t have to entail large amounts of capital investment but can deliver noticeable benefits to employees.

5: Manage your risk

IT governance activities, such as investment portfolio management, risk assessment and management, and resources management can help you manage priorities and justify spending.

6: Work on your relationships

Are you uncomfortable schmoozing with peers? If so, work with a coach or mentor to learn how to network within your company and gain influence with those you need in your circle: the CFO, COO, CEO, and other key stakeholders. Be respectful, not defensive, when others disagree with your plan for action or change. Prove your value as a member at the executive table by helping with strategy and positioning. Rely on peers for valuable insight into company direction.

7: Talk openly with staff

The economic downturn has bred stress and anxiety among most workers today. Communicate frequently with your staff and direct reports about the company’s risk position — but also discuss competitive advantages and opportunities for growth. Help employees understand the reasoning behind budget cuts and how they can help the business get through a difficult period.

8: Develop new areas of expertise

CIOs who can wear multiple hats will have a greater chance of job security, experts say. Volunteer for a project that requires you to work outside of IT for a period of time — for instance, in complementary areas requiring a process discipline, such as distribution, operations, or customer service. Some CIOs are even taking on additional titles with long-term responsibilities for areas outside of IT.

9: Take a hands-on approach

Go into the business units where projects are underway and get your hands dirty. This doesn’t mean doing the implementation yourself, but it could mean helping with user training or holding frequent meetings with business managers to ensure ROI. This will show you possess a can-do attitude and are unafraid to roll up your sleeves for the good of the business.

10: Reflect

When the stakes are high and the pace is furious, it’s easy to get caught up in a panic and forget what you’re doing. Carve out time in your schedule to reflect upon recent progress and upcoming goals. And, of course, take time to develop and work on your own personal career goals.

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays