by John Edwards

7 ways IT leaders derail their careers

Jul 08, 2019
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Falling off track is easy when you make a mistake that can turn a career superstar into a bit player.

derailed railroad track merge split crossroad shift align by mbbirdy getty
Credit: mbbirdy / Getty Images

The moment typically arrives without warning. An IT career that showed every sign of success — steady promotions, salary increases, a better office — suddenly slams to a halt. You’re fired, demoted or involuntarily plateaued. What happened?

It’s impossible to rebuild a broken career without first understanding how it was derailed. The “Success Express” frequently slips off the rails due to a mistake, oversight, offense or miscalculation made in total innocence or ignorance. Often, the victim doesn’t even realize that he or she has made a career-crippling move.

Here’s a look at seven ways leaders inadvertently derail their careers and how you can avoid making the same common mistakes.

1. Not looking beyond IT

IT leaders who don’t bother to thoroughly understand their industry sector and the business world at large generally fail to gain respect and career traction. “While it’s essential to fully understand the technologies needed to support a business’ goals, an IT leader’s true value lies in the ability to help grow the business’ top line, as well as help manage the bottom line,” says Harry Moseley, CIO of Zoom Video Communications, a cloud-based conferencing service provider. When IT leaders are unfamiliar with key industry and business pain points, they often find themselves unable to execute and deliver an IT strategy that supports the enterprise and its goals.

Moseley notes that it’s essential for IT leaders to become familiar with their industry’s terminology, processes and practices, as well as key trends and the competitive landscape. “Today’s CIOs are expected to understand the art of the possible,” he explains. “When they limit their scope to technology alone, they simply cannot do so.”

2. Failing to acquire critical non-IT skills

While IT, by nature, is a highly task-oriented profession, climbing up the career ladder requires many non-tech skills, such as planning, budgeting and collaboration. “If a leader fails to expand his or her skillset, he or she will eventually fall prey to the ‘Peter Principle’ and be promoted to their level of perceived incompetence,” says Jeff Atkinson, CIO of INAP, a data center and cloud solutions provider.

Past successes achieved in a lower-level IT role do not necessarily ensure future victories at enterprise leadership posts. In fact, ill-informed decisions made at a higher level can be career-devastating, ruinous to the point that the blunder could bar future advancement. “Many IT leaders feel that their technical expertise is enough for the job, or they will expand their skills only with regard to technology and fail to learn about other areas … that will help them lead and not just manage,” Atkinson observes.

3. Neglecting business relationships

Without forming strong relationships with fellow business leaders, inside and outside the organization, an IT leader will be less attuned to the shifting priorities, challenges and developments that impact products and markets. “You enhance your value as a strategic advisor when your market sensing is informed by regular exchanges of ideas with other diverse business leaders,” advises Chris Sotomayor, a senior consultant at Point Road Group, a personal branding and career consulting firm. Strong professional relationships and network feedback positions an IT leader to influence change proactively. “Otherwise, you risk being perceived as out of touch and too insular,” he notes.

Networking is a fundamental pillar of career development. “Professional associations, conferences, alumni meetings, user groups — especially those with diverse participants — are great venues to start making new connections and building relationships,” Sotomayor says.

Failing to maintain strong, ongoing relationships with business leaders outside of one’s organization increases the risk when seeking a new career opportunity. “With an ever-growing number of reorganizations and mergers, it’s foolhardy not to regularly network and keep abreast of external job openings,” Sotomayor explains. “If you wait to network until you need a new job, you’ll only prolong your job hunt, making it harder.”

4. Becoming pigeon-holed as a technical specialist

While essential through the lower levels of career advancement, routine technical skills must eventually be eventually be delegated or outsourced. “The best way for an IT director or manager to never become a CIO is to become a technical specialist in a specific domain and never let it go,” warns David Glazer, CIO practice lead at Info-Tech Research Group, a technology research and advisory firm.

For decades, IT leaders have griped about “not having a seat at the table.” “The issue with being overly technical is that you have nothing relevant to say at the table once you get there,” Glazer states. “Once you’re labelled as ‘only’ a technician, you’re relegated to operational tasks and execution, which inhibits career growth and ascension to the C-suite.”

Glazer suggests gradually training or hiring qualified individuals to handle the technical responsibilities being incrementally relinquished. It’s also helpful to find a current or past IT leader to provide coaching advice or mentorship. “Have them hold you to task on your new strategy,” Glazer advises.

5. Failing to embrace change

Enterprises are constantly evolving their direction, goals and IT needs. “Failure to accept and embrace these changes can spell doom for IT leaders,” cautions Joe Bailey, operations director at My Trading Skills, an online securities trading education service. Not keeping pace with business and IT evolution is a major career mistake, particularly for individuals with a resume stretching back a decade or more. “Change is good, and for you to remain a leader in IT you need to roll with the changes as they come,” he says.

It’s important to recognize that rapid change impacts business and technical functions and practices as well as specific technologies. “People who started in project management 20 years ago, and like a waterfall-style project plan and pace, now realize that’s not what they signed up for,” observes Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies, a data center maintenance company. “It’s hard to get out of that niche, and the individual mindset may also make it tough to transition to something else.”

Yet a willingness to accept all forms of change is essential for long-term IT leadership success. “Learning how to understand and accept changes occurring, as pertains to your specific niche within the IT world, can help you remain at the top,” Bailey notes.

6. Falling victim to burnout

Many newly-minted IT leaders fail to maintain a healthy work-life balance and therefore run headfirst into burnout after only a few months on the job.

The best way to prevent a counterproductive flame-out is to establish defined workload boundaries and timelines. “Leaders should set ‘off’ times during evenings, weekends and vacations and honor these windows except for true emergencies,” suggests Scott Gibson, senior vice president of human resources for Sungard Availability Services.

While it’s tempting for new leaders to want to impress their team and management colleagues with displays of energy and resourcefulness, such over-the-top efforts typically lead to an opposite outcome. Setting limits that promote strong long-term performance is a far more intelligent and productive way to make a lasting impression. “The leader just needs the courage to establish the rules of engagement knowing that, in the long run, they will be more engaged during the ‘on’ times,” Gibson says.

IT leaders must also learn to delegate less critical tasks to their team. “Without this support structure, leaders feel a constant pressure to be the only person to make decisions, which is a recipe for disaster in the long term,” Gibson notes.

7. Disregarding customer service responsibilities

Many novice leaders, focused on key technical and business issues, find it easy to forget or ignore their job’s customer-service aspect. “If an IT leader never puts himself or herself into their customers’ shoes to empathize with their needs, they’re going to be short-term leaders everywhere they go,” Cantor says. It’s important to get beyond the ticket interface. “Visit end users, work with them and understand what inhibits their work every day,” he advises.

Neglecting customer service often leads to short-term employment, Cantor says. “No one wants to work with someone who’s going to hide behind process and not work on a personal level.”