So you want to advance and become an IT leader – I applaud your goal, whether it to be a CIO or CISO one day, or a CTO, or perhaps a respected technical expert working as an individual contributor. Leadership is not about having your name at the top of an organization chart, but rather the ability to set a vision, and inspire and support others to work as a team as you strive to reach that vision. There are many different types of IT leaders, and hence, many different ways to advance in IT leadership. But I have been asked often about the lessons I have learned during my career, so I have captured my “Top 10” ways to advance as an IT leader.
The IT field is both broad and deep, in the sense that in any IT technical, process, or management discipline, there is significant complexity. And while no one can begin to understand the whole IT field, I have found that having true understanding of the complexity in one sub-specialty of IT provides one context to appreciate what it takes to both understand and execute well in other sub-specialties. So particularly early in your IT career, seek to truly master a sub-specialty in IT. Not only will you be respected for that, it will provide you valuable insights into the IT field as a whole.
Number 9: Find a good mentor (actually multiple mentors)
One of my weaknesses, especially early in my career, has been a lack of self-awareness (in particular, how my words and actions are perceived by others). At least for me, having mentors throughout my career who can sit me down, tell me the hard truth, and give me sound advice has been invaluable. These are not always pleasant conversations, but they have almost always been helpful, as long as I had the emotional intelligence to absorb and adjust my behavior. Everyone has weaknesses – find mentors to help you mitigate yours.
Number 8: Learn how to successfully manage projects
When it comes to delivering new IT capabilities or services for your customers, how does the organization actually do that? They run projects, whether they call them projects or not. So having the knowledge on how to both plan and manage a project is a critical and differentiating skill. Get the formal training, get the certifications, but most importantly, put yourself in a position to actually lead projects. Managing projects of ever-increasing complexity will give you invaluable experience that cannot be obtained in any other manner.
Number 7: Be a learner and create a learning organization
The change in IT is relentless and it always feels to me that it is accelerating. You need, as an individual, to embrace this change and be a lifetime learner. And when you have a chance to lead an organization, bring that enthusiasm for learning to the organization as well. Treat career development as a key priority for your team, not as an afterthought. You will engender great loyalty when your staff knows you value them enough to want to invest in their future.
Number 6: Understand your organization’s business
If you aspire to senior level management roles in IT, this factor becomes critical. The ability to work collaboratively with business leaders (your customers) in determining innovative ways that IT solutions can support and evolve, and even transform, your organization’s business operations is the hallmark of a great CIO today. But you don’t need to wait to be a CIO to leverage this ability. The more you understand your customers, the more effective solutions you can bring, whether you are a project team member, a PM, or the CIO.
Number 5: Protect against the downside
Today, major cyber security breaches and major IT project debacles kill careers. Taking on senior IT roles puts you in the hot seat and in today’s environment, there are no excuses and in many cases, no second chances. So how versed are you on implementing a robust cyber security risk management process and ensuring it is executed well. And major projects – you having mastered Number 8 above puts you in a much better position to ensure major projects under your purview are set up and managed for success.
Number 4: Become a servant leader
There are a number of different leadership styles, but for me, I have found that servant leadership is the best, based on my beliefs and value system. As I described above, IT is a broad and complex set of disciplines. The only way to build a high-performing organization is to have a highly capable, empowered staff in management and in most individual contributor positions. I have found that success in running an IT organization requires a leader to work to develop and support his or her direct managers, and setting a culture of support and empowerment at all levels of the organization, regardless of its size.
Number 3: Enjoy the ride
Life is so much better if you really enjoy the work you do, not that every day is going to be a good day. But if you have passion for your work, and you see that serving your customers is inspiring, you naturally inspire others. IT leadership is complex and difficult – your attitude is highly correlated to your success.
Number 2: Know your destination, but be flexible on the journey
I think it is a very good practice to have aspirational goals, even goals that might take decades to achieve. When someone fresh out of school tells me they want to be a CIO at a large company some day, I say great. But don’t try to script the path to a goal, and in doing so, lock yourself out of unconventional opportunities. I never expected to work in the public sector, but when I was 42, I was offered the opportunity to become the Program Manager of the multi-billion dollar Business Systems Modernization Program at the IRS. My taking that role has been the best professional decision of my career.
Number 1: Be a person of integrity
Be a person of your word, have a moral compass, and be a person that refuses to compromise on your values, even in face of intense pressure. I have lost a job because I would not compromise my values, so I know that being a person of integrity can be difficult at times. I cannot stress to you enough how important integrity is to your long-term success as a leader. M.H. Mckee said it so well:
“Integrity is one of several paths. It distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path, and the only one upon which you will never get lost.”
So there you are – my “Top 10.” We all have to find our own way in our career, and I wish you the best as you travel your own path. I certainly hope that in reading this article, you have gained an insight that will help you on your journey.
Richard Spires has spent more than 30 years in the IT industry, including serving as the CIO at the IRS and the CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He has won a number of awards recognizing his leadership in IT.