"Progress always involves risk; you can't steal second base and keep your foot on first."
- F.W. Dupee
Are you looking to advance your career? Do you want to become CIO or take on another executive IT position?
During the past three weeks I've had the honor of coaching a couple IT directors and managers. Each has aspirations to a "C-level" position at some point in the future. One of the key concepts that we address in coaching is that moving into new roles is often as much about what you let go of as it is about what you hold onto or what you develop.
Below are three things you must let go of in order to grow into a CIO. Included in each section is one way to help you let go and grow.
Let go of technical expertise
The truth is, many IT managers are in their roles due to successful execution of technology projects. They may have, in fact, been the best technologist at their companies. This can be a barrier to becoming an executive leader.
When you have made your name and advanced your career with technical prowess, it can be difficult, even fearful, to let those skills lapse while you take the time learning to manage people. Additionally, the need to create a broader vision — one that encompasses company ideals, goals, and interdepartmental relationships and interaction — leaves far less time to learn and play with new technologies.
This can be stressful, leading to a type of burnout due to the time or mental energy expended trying to keep a foot in each world.
In part, this is caused by a lack of respect for broad leadership talent. It is no secret that some IT pros have an open disregard and even contempt for management.
"Management doesn't know X or Y technology, so how can they direct or understand me?"
Even if you do not hold this particular viewpoint, you may be influenced by it — subconsciously viewing hard technical skills as more valuable than soft skills and leadership.
Solution: Spend time with leaders
Early in my career, while working at a large insurance company, I started developing relationships with some of the leaders I respected. I would try to have coffee or lunch with someone in upper management each week.
In order to make this happen, I would, of course, bend to their schedules. Sometimes, this was just 10 minutes of conversation. In doing so, I developed both a respect and empathy for the challenges and decisions leaders make daily.
Let go of 'Us vs. Them'
Years ago, "Saturday Night Live" introduced, "Nick Burns: Your Computer Guy." Nick Burns was the stereotypical arrogant and dismissive caricature of the IT Professional. It was funny! He hated the users because they were all stupid. We see the same concept portrayed in The IT Crowd.
The problem with the caricature is that it is true in many cases. I've been involved with many IT groups that have a jaded and dismissive view towards "stupid users" and management. This perspective will kill your ability to move up in the organization and certainly creates a barrier to becoming a leader.
Solution: The user is the purpose not the problem
Whether you work in infrastructure or applications, the user — often intelligent and overworked, just like you — is the reason for your existence. In the end, there is no other reason for IT professionals to provide services or better utilization of technology than the users who use the technologies.
Even if you are supporting other technologists, at some point, the end game is not simply about technology in isolation. If you find that you carry an "Us vs. Them" perspective, you need to spend more time outside of the gilded-walls of IT and live with those who use your technology. Empathy goes a long way.
Let go of 'Do it yourself'
Delegate or die!
A byproduct of being great at technology is that you often believe — and perhaps accurately — that you can do a given task better and faster than those working for you. (Mea Culpa: This happened to me a lot.)
The problem with this is that it is arrogant and it avoids the real growth that is needed in two critical areas.
First, your staff needs to grow. They need to learn how to deliver solutions. Often these are new technologies to them. That's life in IT.
I was struggling handing over a project to my son, a relative newbie in Web development. A friend of mine, a business process manager for an entertainment company here in L.A., said, "Do not rob him of the frustration and joy of discovery."
It is good advice and has led to several successful projects and tremendous growth in my son's skillset. He has surpassed my skill in that area, and I'm much happier for it.
Secondly, you need to grow. Learning to delegate effectively is a skill. Learning to turn things over, even those things you are great at, is the only way to become great at that next thing. You might just discover that you aren't the best at it. Often innovation comes through new eyes looking at existing technologies and applying their take on it.
Solution: Forced delegation days
This is one of the techniques that a friend and mentor gave to me. He forced me to delegate all of my tasks for one entire day. Now I do this at least once a week. Seriously, I delegate everything — even simple things. The only tasks I take on personally are phone calls and tracking the tasks I have delegated.
Let go and grow
Is this everything you need to grow into an executive leader? Nope. Not by a long shot. But these areas provide insight into behaviors and ideas that may be holding you back from becoming a leader and eventually becoming a CIO.
Most of them involve as much honest self reflection as anything else. And that is a critical skill for any leader.
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