I recently went to the National Black MBA Association event in Orlando to do interviews for my company, and it was exciting to meet so many fresh faces, eager to get started in a career in consulting. Here's some of the advice I gave the graduating MBAs that is relevant for anyone looking to move into a leadership role.
1: Become a lifelong learner
The most effective leaders can rapidly gain the basic knowledge they need to understand and make decisions on a topic they're unfamiliar with. In IT especially, we're constantly encountering new technologies, and asked to make rapid decisions on which is most appropriate for a given set of circumstances.
In addition to being able to rapidly acquire knowledge, effective leaders also have a broad body of general knowledge that they can apply to problems and situations. You'll encounter everything from the very human challenges of advising a subordinate or a colleague who falls on hard times, just as you might need to speak with an executive or a customer about anything from woodworking to women's rights. As you move into leadership, focus on acquiring knowledge that's "a mile wide and a few inches deep" rather than the technician that's focused on deep knowledge of a very narrow area.
2: Avoid the "expert game"
In most leadership roles, you'll be regarded as an expert in your field, and it's tempting to let this esteem go to your head and ignore those who are younger, less experienced, or come from outside your company. Even if you're publically held aloft for your knowledge, there will always be opportunities to learn new things, and many of the smartest leaders I know delight in approaching every topic as students rather than as grizzled veterans with nothing to learn.
3: Practice what you preach
People naturally look up to leaders, and will watch and emulate your performance. Every action you take will be interpreted as a guideline of appropriate behavior.
High-minded words about integrity and ethics are wiped away in milliseconds when a leader condones cheating or misrepresents something, or when lackluster performance is routinely tolerated as par for the course. Even a well-meaning quip about another employee can be interpreted as an open license to disrespect colleagues. Conversely, being genuinely enthusiastic in your words and actions will be contagious.
While it can feel like walking on pins and needles, it is a price of leadership, and a tool of great power. When the leader practices what he or she preaches, the message is unmistakable.
4: Have a plan for your career
If you're interested in a leadership role, or want to move up the ranks, spend time every few months evaluating your current position, the skills you need to advance, and the colleagues who can help you directly or by virtue of serving as role models. It's a dangerous mistake to assume HR, your boss, or some other force is carefully planning your career. Even if you're participating in formal leadership training programs, or have been explicitly told you're being groomed for a leadership position, ensure your hand is firmly on the tiller of your career, lest someone else run you aground.
Some may dismiss this as organizational politicking, but you must determine how you'll relate to your colleagues, and how all parties can benefit through those relationships. Rather than an office Game of Thrones, it's protecting your self-interest, and can often be done in a manner that benefits all parties.
If you do nothing else, regularly consider how you're developing your leadership talents, and think about where you want your career to take you. If the opportunity presents itself, spend time with people who are entering the field, and whose enthusiasm can be invigorating.
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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.