Over the many years that I have been writing for CIO, I have learned that readers love career advice. And who can blame them? Life as an IT executive is challenging, and the more we can benefit from the hard-won lessons of our peers, the more successful we can be.
In this week’s blog, I have collected some great career advice that CIOs have recounted to me over the last 12 months, and I offer it to you now. If you have career advice of your own to share, please do so by posting a comment.
Greg Fell, CIO of Terex
My background is as a very deep technologist; early on in my career I did not have much experience with business relationship management I was a technical specialist programmer writing CAD software that nobody else could write, and I prided myself on my deep technical expertise. One of my managers said, “We think you have senior leadership potential,” but I didn’t see that in myself, and I wasn’t interested. I was interested in the technical work. I told them, “Management is not interesting to me. It’s the technical work that gets me excited to come to work every day.”
The advice I received is that if I took roles that built my management acumen, I would be able to both: the leadership and the technical work. If you’re the CIO, nobody is going to stop you from going home (as I do now) and plugging in a new PC version of Solaris to see how it stacks up against Linux. The advice was that just because I see myself as a technologist today, that doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind tomorrow.
I actually changed jobs because of that advice. I moved from a very technical job to be the chief of staff for a senior executive. That job changed my thinking early enough in my career I was able to become a CIO in my early 40s.
About 10 years ago when I was leading the IT group at my prior job, I was heavily involved in day-to-day operations. I was asked to take on an additional role, but because I didn’t know a lot about this new role, inevitably it was going to take up a lot of my time.
I had to really depend on my key leaders in IT while I put the majority of my focus on the new role. What I discovered during that period of time – and I didn’t know this until I saw it all play out – is that I didn’t have to be the single point of contact for my team anymore.
When I pulled myself out of the middle, my senior leaders started to work directly with each other. Removing myself from the day-to-day operations allowed our IT organization to become so much more powerful. Our team was much more cohesive and worked well together.
So, the advice is: “Rather than helping your leaders solve all of their day-to-day problems, expect them to work together to solve problems and bring you recommendations.”
Earlier in my career, I was in a position to ask for a job in Europe, even though I had two teenage children at the time and a spouse with a career. Nobody would have guessed that I would have wanted the role. In fact, most people assumed that I would not have wanted to move. Well, I did ask for the job, and it worked out really well for me. The advice is: Don’t leave people guessing about your career goals. If you want something, ask for it. A corollary is: If you ask for a career opportunity, be prepared to take it.
It’s not hard to make immediate changes and see measurable gains during the first few years as CIO in a new organization. The hard part is building a long-lasting culture and leadership team around you that will sustain and strive for continuous improvement even after the initial gains have been realized. Sustainability and a culture of continuous improvement are the ultimate measures of success for an organization.
This was more than 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was working at Oracle back in the 1980s when things were moving very quickly and it was a tough environment. I reported to an executive vice president, and remember going into his office and listing out a bunch of challenges I was having. He looked at me across the table and said, “Okay, those are your problems, but what is your solution?” And I realized that I could have come up with a solution, but I didn’t. Instead, I made the mistake of going to him with a bunch of problems without offering any answers to them.
So one of the things I tell my team is that they are closer to the problem than anybody else is and are more likely to have a good idea than I am at first blush. And they probably will have thought about it a lot longer than I have. With this in mind, I ask them to bring me a proposed solution when they encounter challenges.
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.