Four Secrets to Becoming a Rising IT Star

To make sure your climb up the career ladder goes fast and easy, you'll need to earn the trust of your colleagues and demonstrate your promotability.

Success is not easy or simple. Even in the best of times, workplaces are fraught with changing conditions, political jockeying and limited room for advancement. And these are not the best times.

Yet some IT staff manage to get noticed—and in all the right ways. What are the secrets of their success? How do some IT leaders manage to shine?

Beyond the basics—energy, enthusiasm, passion for the work—four important behaviors can help catapult you to success, say CIOs and executive recruiters.

Be good to your end users.

First things first: If you want to get ahead, don't make people feel stupid. This advice can be especially important for IT folks, whose technical expertise can create a danger of doing just that.

"People outside of IT won't necessarily understand tech speak, so you need to present information in a manner so they understand technology and what it provides to the company," says John Murphy, CIO of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi, Miss. Murphy's ability to do so has helped him in the executive suite with other C-level colleagues. "I've been able to translate technical information to them in the manner they can understand and assimilate and in a way that shows the benefits to the big picture," he says.

Randy Jackson, CIO of the city of Surprise, Arizona
Randy Jackson, CIO of the city Surprise, Ariz., says understanding how techology fits into users' lives is key to creating innovative IT solutions.

Thinking hard about how to help someone else understand what you're saying may seem obvious for important presentations; doing it day in and day out may prove more challenging. But don't dismiss those small, cumulative interactions. "You develop an opinion about people over time," says Gerard McNamara, Managing Partner at Heidrick and Struggles, an executive recruitment firm. In those daily interactions lie many opportunities for you to distinguish yourself by your energy, enthusiasm, and likability. This way, when a more senior job opens up, the support to put you in the position is there—not just from your boss, but also from other senior leaders. "We're all human," says McNamara. "People pick people they like."

To make sure your likability quotient is high, focus on being open-minded, says Randy Jackson, CIO of the city of Surprise, Ariz. Make it a point to listen when others are speaking. "Don't place an assumption on the table when you're trying to figure out a problem." really listen to what someone is saying and process what you're hearing. Doing so conveys respect, and you also are likely to develop solutions you wouldn't have otherwise.

End-user problems—large and small—are opportunities to build relationships that can advance your career, says the Hard Rock's Murphy. It's all in how you handle those situations that makes the difference. "Don't make an end user feel dumb for not understanding; make them feel good about coming to you and asking what the problem is."

Go beyond the walls of IT and learn the business.

IT leaders who want to move up must become business-savvy. Not just so you can talk the talk. Without understanding business users' work lives, it's impossible to deliver optimum technology solutions.

Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Healthcare, credits much of his own success with understanding how IT fits into his end users' work processes. He says that IT staff who want to climb the ladder must also "become intricately involved in other areas of the business." To get intimate knowledge of nurses' and doctors' challenges and how IT can solve them, he meets with the medical staff regularly, even accompanying them on rounds. He also makes it a point to educate them on the technology. His philosophy on the subject to his staff is clear: Get involved with business users. "Go door to door," he says. "Meet with them and their teams."

Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Healthcare
Marc Probst, CIO of Intermountain Healthcare, emphasizes that IT staff should understand business processes.

Jackson also considers such advice crucial. "IT affects every department within city government, so we need to understand how those departments work and how best to deliver tech service that meets their needs." He says he wants his team to "give the customer some tool they may not even have thought of, that they can look at it and say, Wow, I'm glad we came to you." That's only possible, he says, if you understand how other groups are run and the challenges they face. Developing such a rapport also helps discourage the tendency of business users to create a shadow IT department. "If you don't solve their problems with good solutions, they will go around you," he says.

Understand the organization's structure and goals.

If you want to move up the ladder of success, you need to create strategic IT. To do that, you need to know what top management values. "Every company has a culture," says McNamara. "And those cultures reward different things."

Key to moving ahead is knowing what to prioritize. This means, for example, knowing which projects to volunteer for and how to promote them to those above you. "Knowing what the business defines as valuable is increasingly important the higher up you go," says Murphy. "So you've got to understand goals, and how IT can be used to achieve those goals." He recommends not just looking for ways IT can create value but also being responsive when opportunities present themselves.

One place where this comes into play is the IT budget. "Managing IT like a P&L is key to moving up," says Probst. IT should be adding value and helping differentiate the business. However, that's not possible if an IT leader's goal is simply saving money. Build into that budget what you need to do to create value. "Of my direct reports, 80 percent do that," says Probst.

Build trust with your boss.

Trust is the glue that binds relationships together inside and outside of work. Without it, moving up is virtually impossible. And honest communication is a huge part of building trust with your manager. Share the good news—and the bad.

Avoid the temptation to sweep bad news about a project or assignment under the rug. You may think you're sparing your boss. But Probst and other CIOs say it's better to overshare than to undershare. The trick lies in knowing when and where to share information.

Probst says to sit down and talk to your manager about how to communicate when problems come up. "I don't like when information feels filtered, like something is being hidden. That will slow you down real fast," says Probst. "I want to know what's going on."

Murphy agrees with Probst's take. "I'd better know before my CEO calls me and tells me what's wrong," he says. "The last thing anybody wants is to be broadsided."

Information sharing, when it comes right down to it, translates to respect. "I think that it's very important to use chain of command in place and not circumvent your manager. It's his or her job to make you look better to the organization. And if you don't have that kind of trust you should look for someone you could have that with," says Murphy.

Insider Resume Makeover: How (and When) to Break the Rules
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies