How to get ahead

As director of professional recruiting and a 15-year veteran of Find Great People International, I’ve seen plenty of superbly qualified IT executive candidates. Yet I’ve also seen many of them sidestep some of the simplest, most straightforward methods of propelling themselves into higher positions.

The best progress is gradual, perhaps even invisible. It’s the kind no one seems to notice — until one day they wake up and realize that their buddy Ben is now regarded as some sort of corporate celebrity. Don’t laugh. It can happen. So how do you gather the enduring respect of colleagues, clients and business associates, and what’s more, do it without coming off as pompous or self-serving? Here are a few ideas.

Develop some longevity

Too many IT executives are still leap-frogging from job to job, sometimes as often as every six months. But earning higher salaries and increased stock options doesn’t begin to compensate for the poor professional images of those who apparently feel little or no company loyalty.

“In a rapidly changing field such as IT, anyone who hires you wants, needs and deserves the reassurance that you’ll be sticking around for quite a while,” says Arthur Brock, CTO of Dream Technologies in Denver.

I recently helped a client find a senior vice-president of application development. My client evaluated the resume of a candidate and fired back a note: “Wow, lots of job movement here! I’d like to know what the problem is.”

Fortunately I explained the mitigating factors: various company mergers and several assignments with different consulting firms. But it still left a sour taste in the client’s mouth, and the digging required for me to validate the circumstances cost both of us valuable time. It would have been better for us to have invested that time discussing that executive’s stellar qualifications leading to the obvious request for an interview.

Finish what you start

Think of this as a corollary to the above. If you’re hired to oversee a new infrastructure upgrade, then you’d better not cut and run when things get messy — which they will. Conceptualizing is easy. Putting plans into action is hard because at that stage you’re invariably dealing with human beings who are unpredictable and rarely satisfied with the results.

Say you develop a plan to roll out Active Directory Service, always a bear within any large corporation. But you don’t seek input from your team and delegate all the grunt work to others at your own peril. One of your greatest challenges, Brock notes, might fall under the heading of “people” skills — leading them gently through a change, rather than assuming that its need is obvious and shouldn’t even be questioned.

As for ducking out the back door before the job is completed, well, no one will ever forget you. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Ask for more responsibility

If you don’t ask, you probably won’t get. Believe it or not, bosses strongly resist the draft; they’d much rather hear from some eager beaver than tap an unwilling or overwhelmed prospect on the shoulder.

Imagine the effect of your telling some higher-up, “I’ve located a new security package that might be applicable here. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to research it in addition to what I’m already doing and then get back to you with my conclusions.”

Wouldn’t the boss likely nod and then mentally instruct you to go to the head of the class? I’d bet on it more often than not. Promotions tend to be the result of outstanding efforts day-by-day. It’s your job to paint a picture of yourself as someone who’s always searching for ways to grow and improve, but also aware of what will and won’t apply — all in your company’s best interest, of course.

Go public

Many trade publications, newsletters and Web sites are literally crying for stories. One of the single, most beneficial things you can do to advance your IT career is to get published. Somehow seeing one’s name in print or online automatically elevates that person to guru status.

Have you recently implemented some great new technology or procedure, or perhaps arrived at a fresh business insight through an anecdotal experience? Tell your story. As long as you can articulate your purpose, your method of implementation and the far-reaching benefits, most editors will be delighted to hear from you.

Also, don’t turn down any chance to sit on a panel or speak at a trade conference. Your colleagues are constantly in search of better ways to implement new technology or to escort people through the adaptation process. You can even go “public” by gathering data, Brock says, constructing formal case studies that will be helpful to others and then generously sharing your insights. It’s a terrific opportunity to promote your own company and indirectly, yourself.

Remember the ripple effect. There might be only 30 people in your audience — but one of them might want to consult with you later, now that you’re a recognized “expert.”

A side note: Don’t expect to be paid for this. There’s rarely an adequate budget. Think of it instead in terms of win-win: The association/organization receives a gift, it’s good PR for your corporation, and you get another opportunity to be made visible in your field.

Continue the educational process

Anyone who’s trying to rise through the IT ranks almost can’t have too much certification, especially in the computer field. Every course you take, every exam you pass, every degree you earn adds to your credibility. And once you become a manager or a vice-president, no one can ask why you’ve been “knighted” without the proper credentials.

The educational process should transcend formal classes. “You absolutely must stay current,” Brock warns. “You can’t afford ever to be blindsided by your customers’ questions or by their companies’ specific needs. In such a rapidly evolving field, when someone asks how you’re adjusting to some new technology, you’ll need a ready answer — and perhaps even an illuminating tale or two.”

Perhaps you’ve noticed what all these suggestions have in common: They don’t involve any arrogance or grandstanding. By increasing your dependability, asking for additional responsibility, and sharing or enhancing your knowledge, you invariably elevate and advance yourself. Overall, a pretty good payoff.

Hall is director of professional recruiting for Find Great People International, a Greenville, S.C., global professional search firm that matches great people with great companies for permanent placements and contract engagements in IT, apparel, health care, accounting and finance. He can be reached at [email protected].

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