Emulating today's IT innovators and leaders isn't just for those who have a deep-seated desire to shape companies and industries. It's also a rewarding strategy for anyone who wants to get more out of his career.
Whether or not you picture your face next to a CIO cover story, you can take steps toward a more fulfilling career by rededicating yourself to a few core principles: an ongoing commitment to learning, a willingness to improve your interpersonal and business skills, and a deliberate effort to establish yourself as a leader.
Never stop learning
One trait you'd be hard-pressed to find among leading CIOs is a willingness to rest on their laurels. IT professionals who have to be asked to learn new skills confine themselves to narrowly defined careers.
While it's essential to master a technical specialty, those who become leaders tend to broaden, not just deepen, their areas of expertise. Attending a conference on a topic that's outside your comfort zone is a great way to stimulate your thinking. In addition to traditional classes and seminars, seek out other ways to learn, like finding a mentor or taking on projects that stretch your abilities.
Keep track of blogs and websites in areas that interest you, participate in online forums, and attend trade shows and networking events, always with a critical eye on your future. What new technologies are most likely to shape the industry? By keeping up with changes in technology, you gain the ability to steer your career toward growing specialties (such as wireless security, to use a current example) and away from less marketable ones.
Soft skills set you apart
Keeping your technical skills and knowledge up to date is important, but if you want to help bring about change rather than just respond to it, you'll also need to take a look at how you work with others.
In a survey by Robert Half Technology, CIOs cited interpersonal skills, the ability to work under pressure and communication skills as the top traits they seek in IT professionals, aside from technological proficiency. Soft skills may be trickier to assess and improve than hard skills, but they're critical to the impact you have on your colleagues, company and industry.
It's a good idea to periodically assess your soft skills to determine where improvements should be made. Ask trusted colleagues for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. When you identify a shortcoming, make a plan to address it. For example, if you think you could stand to improve your presentation skills, you might consider enrolling in an organization like Toastmasters or volunteering to give your team's status update at the next staff meeting.
Business savvy is another key attribute that requires deliberate effort. Whenever you're uncertain about the bottom-line "why" of an IT project, refresh your knowledge of the company's priorities and goals by talking to your manager. A big-picture perspective is a prerequisite to making meaningful contributions to your firm.
In addition, understanding the big picture enables you to anticipate the needs of your company and your industry before those needs become apparent to everyone – a major distinguishing characteristic of IT innovators.
Establish your leadership potential
For the most successful IT professionals, job descriptions are just starting points. When you take the initiative to expand your role, people start to think of you as a leader. Serving as a leader also means demonstrating integrity and selflessness. For example, the willingness to "own" a mistake or a failed project does more to establish your credibility than making sure you get your share of the credit when a project succeeds.
Your role as a leader should extend beyond the walls of your company. Joining a professional association, going to conferences and offering to speak or present at industry events are good ways to build your reputation and become an active part of the exchange of ideas. Many successful IT careers get stuck on plateaus not because of any shortage of ingenuity or persistence, but because they take place largely in a vacuum rather than in constant, creative interaction with others.
The best-laid plans ...
While career planning is important, few of the most successful people in IT end up where they expected to. In fact, many technology standouts owe their success to their ability to change course based on developments in their companies and fields. By being willing to explore unexpected paths, you may run the risk of reaching a dead end or two, but you also open yourself up to a much broader range of professional possibilities.