The unique capabilities of an enterprise IT professional

Maybe anyone can “do” IT with the proper training, but that doesn’t mean everyone will do it really well.

I was reminded of this at lunch today, when I had lunch with a management consultant and a longtime high-tech veteran who has spent a considerable portion of his career on executive development and coaching. He has worked for very large companies and very small companies, managed P&Ls for the better part of 30 years and brokered multi-million dollar deals. He had no reason to doubt his value in the market, but there was a time, he said, when he wanted to try and assess his own development. So he tried to narrow down what he called his unique capabilities.

“Everybody has something that they can do better than anyone else, or that they will do in a way that no one else does, and it constitutes the kind of contribution they make to the organization,” he said. Then there’s everything else we do – the grunt work, the necessary but not always critical tasks, the make-work projects and the utter time-wasters. In between there are the things we do well, but that, if we were to leave our jobs, someone else could do equally well. Isolating these things from one another is not as easy as you might think.

My management consultant friend took a straightforward route to get the answers. First, he chronicled everything he did for a week, and tried to categorize it appropriately. Then he sent around an e-mail to about 30 people – not just coworkers but friends, family members, anyone who knew him well – and explained that he was undertaking a mentorship program and he needed them to offer their thoughts on his unique capabilities.

“And to the very last person, it all ended up being the same key things,” he said. “Not only that, but they were things I never would have necessarily come up by myself.” Slowly, looking at the feedback from his circle, he tied it to the tasks he has documented and found they matched.

I’m not sure how many IT professionals have gone through this kind of exercise, but it strikes me as worthwhile. There are lots of people who are managing a data centre, developing an e-commerce strategy or deploying a set of software tools that will transform the business. With the right budget, those, anyone could have the same calibre of IT infrastructure and applications. Yet in some cases technology sputters along and in others it creates high-performing companies and teams. What are the unique capabilities of the IT managers in the latter set of organizations – or perhaps what are the elements in the culture of those organizations that allow those unique capabilities to flourish?

The worst feedback you could get from this approach is no feedback. That is, no one in an IT manager’s circle of 30 people should say they are uniquely gifted at resetting a password or deploying a virtual machine. If others can’t recognize a technology professional’s unique capabilities it may be because they see nothing but the technology. Conversely, the most successful IT professionals tend to be great at demonstrating their organizational skills, their listening skills, their teaching skills or their creative brainstorming skills. Marketing those to the point where others see it, and where you can see it in yourself, may be the most unique capability of all.

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