Want to get ahead in IT? Make yourself uncomfortable

Here’s a piece of advice for IT pros who are good at technology but want to become executives: Get uncomfortable.

That’s an inevitable part of developing into a leader, says Larry Bonfante, the CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association whose book “Lessons in IT Transformation” is scheduled for publication later this month. (Amazon.com is taking preorders now.) So the best thing to do is start working on the skills you need, sooner rather than later.

“Put yourself in opportunities where you are forced to learn something,” he says. “There’s no way you can grow without being uncomfortable.”

For Bonfante, that discomfort came earlier in his career when he was put in a management position over people whom he considered friends and with whom he had been a peer. “I had to find a balance between being friends and managing,” he says. “Before we were colleagues. They needed to understand that they had accountability, and they couldn’t slough things off. … It’s like getting married and then you learn a lot in the first couple of years how to be married,” he says.

Often among IT professionals, discomfort stems from pushing themselves to develop people skills — the lack of which might have attracted them to IT in the first place. The job could allow them to work alone, without a lot of personal contact. But to get ahead, they need to get over it, look at themselves as others see them, then work on improvements, Bonfante says.

Step 1: do an assessment of personal skills by asking managers, colleagues and clients what they think. The focus should be on their view of leadership skills needed to become an IT executive — communication, building teams, articulating vision. Take all the answers to heart and compile a list of what people say.

That should be followed by a plan of action to acquire skills found wanting in the assessment, again using input from others. “I’m a big fan of pulling together a personal board of directors,” Bonfante says. “Three to six people who you trust and respect and could help you get where you want to be,” he says.

The board need not be formal or even meet together at the same time. Quarterly lunch meetings or periodic conversations over drinks will do as long as they continue regularly and there is a focused agenda. “Informal is fine, but you have to take it seriously,” Bonfante says. “Most people spend more time planning their vacation than they do planning their careers.”

The three big skills most IT professionals need work on are communications, focusing on other people and marketing. Communications, he says, is surprisingly reliant on listening well and asking good questions, not dominating a conversation. That realization alone can help remove some of the difficulty some people have mastering the skill, he says.

Helping others to improve their skills will not only improve the team they belong to but also are a mark of a good leader, Bonfante says. Leadership is about involving others in making good decisions and executing on plans.

“Marketing” may be a foreign word to IT workers, but it’s all about making sure executives and staff in business units are aware of what IT does. That doesn’t mean bragging, he says. But sending an email to people outside the department letting them know that a project is completed and what it will mean to improving the business bottom line is good marketing. It fills people in on new capabilities they can use and gets the word out that IT is doing a good job. “Some people think, ‘If I do a good job, it should be obvious to people,'” he says. “Well, no. It’s not.”

Practice of new skills can be formal or informal. For example, they can try out management skills informally by joining groups at work — perhaps a charitable fundraiser the company is backing — and helping to run them. In his own case, Bonfante got a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

Beyond personal skills, those seeking IT management positions should pull their heads out of their technical job and see the larger business goals of the company they work for. Seeing how IT fits into the big picture can help people to develop the perspective CIOs need when they deal with other C-level executives sitting on corporate boards.

Bonfante is a freelance executive coach, giving one-on-one advice to IT pros on their way up the corporate ladder, including several CIOs, who he works with on day-to-day tactical problems they face. “Anyone can improve,” he says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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