Jackie Hughes knows what she likes in fast-track staffers hoping to climb through the ranks. The problem is, they’re very hard to find.

In her 15 years in information technology management, Hughes said less than 20 per cent of her staffers have been of the calibre that she would like to see in management positions.

Too many IT professionals don’t empathize with others or communicate progress or problems to managers or users on specific projects – in other words, they lack the people skills needed to make them reliable leaders, said Hughes, vice-president and CIO at Specialty Laboratories Inc., an international medical reference lab in Santa Monica, Calif.

Many IT workers simply haven’t learned the art of “spin doctoring,” or sending the messages that others want or need to hear, Hughes said. Some are even guilty of being prima donnas or elitists, unconcerned with how or why their work fits into the bigger picture.

They remain perennial bridesmaids as their peers become brides and grooms of promotion within the organization.

“The type of people I want to promote are those who can instil confidence that they are in control,” Hughes said. “That holds a lot of technical people back. They’re so absorbed with what they’re doing, they can’t connect with what the company or key organizations are trying to do.”

In today’s tight labour market, growth opportunities abound – for the right candidates. Executives say the problem is that many staffers lack the qualities needed to rise through the ranks or be singled out for plum jobs or leadership assignments. It’s not that there’s a single attribute that becomes an Achilles’ heel; rather, many workers lack a package of skills that many executives are looking for in promotable candidates, said Helen MacKinnon, a former IT manager who is currently president of Technical Connections Inc., a Los Angeles-based IT recruitment firm.

Risk, Recognition, Reward

The worst habits a passed-over worker demonstrates include blowing commitments or deadlines, not advancing individual education or knowledge of IT through conferences or classroom study and staying focused on a single technology without concern for branching out, MacKinnon said.

These workers don’t ask for risky assignments because of a fear of failure.

They don’t realize that success could bring heightened recognition and improved career possibilities, she said.

Even if all those attributes are in place, the workers who get left behind often don’t speak up to managers or the company’s senior management, MacKinnon said. They don’t request leadership or presentation roles on projects, and that lack of self-promotion can often leave even a ripe managerial candidate hovering in the shadows. When e-mailing project news or updates to their managers, these workers won’t send copies to more senior management – even with their supervisor’s approval, she notes.

“You want to get that kind of exposure. It doesn’t have to be obnoxious, but it has to be done,” MacKinnon said. “If you’re in a large organization, you have to let the right people know who you are.”

Part of Tomorrow’s Team

Bob Rose said fewer than a dozen of his 37 staffers will rise through the ranks at Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. As manager of end-user support, Rose follows the philosophy of company president Bob Dickinson: “If we had to start Carnival over again tomorrow, who would the manager use?”

The people who don’t get the promotions or plum assignments are poor partners to the company and its end users, Rose said. They just don’t see the big picture, and they don’t realize or acknowledge that the department’s ultimate goal is to facilitate or boost sales of cruise vacations.

Rose also warns that “information hoarders” who deliberately identify themselves with their skill sets and expertise and believe that their technical prowess will make them indispensable could be left behind.

Company-wide, Carnival managers rank employees on a scale of one to four. Rose said half his staffers are ones or twos – people who could be replaced “in no time” with a simple want ad. “If it’s a guy who believes he’s irreplaceable, I look to replace him,” Rose said.

Lynn Johnson, supervisor of logistics at Carnival, said she’s never considered herself irreplaceable during her 11 years at the company. But she still hasn’t climbed Carnival’s corporate ladder.

In the past, it was rare when Johnson was noticed by her superiors. She admits she played the role of perennial bridesmaid, with co-workers rising through the ranks and getting noticed while she toiled in the shadows.

When she was noticed, her demeanour was considered “very direct” – a tone she acknowledges likely held her back.

“It was how I talked to and handled people,” Johnson said. Then Rose, her boss, sat with her, acting as a mentor and offering her advice about how to carry herself with peers and managers and in meetings and presentations. Today, Johnson’s a team player.

What changed? She received guidance from her manager and gained the wisdom to take cues, Johnson said. Higher management now has more confidence in and awareness of her, she said. Her job title has remained the same, but her pay has increased.

“I was somebody else’s bridesmaid,” Johnson claims, three years after Rose began helping her find her way to the advancement altar at Carnival. “Now my satisfaction is up 200 per cent from where it was. There’s no comparison.”

Zbar is a freelance writer in Coral Springs, Fla.