As companies emerge from the recession, IT managers need to rethink their careers, especially as businesses recast IT's role more as growing the business than running the operations. The old approaches to career growth won't work. Instead, IT managers -- and those who aspire to be managers -- should focus on seven key skills for the new era.
Although no single set of skills can bulletproof your career in this decade and beyond, the foremost of these seven is the ability to continuously learn and possess a broad range of valuable tech and leadership capabilities, according to IT experts interviewed by InfoWorld.com.
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"The survival skill for an IT manager is the ability to think about where you develop your career," contends Kathryn Ullrich, an executive IT recruiter and author of "Getting to the Top" (Silicon Valley Press, 2010). "How do you stay on the cutting edge of tech so you're continuing to develop your skill set? And career resilience? If you're developing into a manager, director, or VP, it is about adding leadership skills."
Although IT managers can't be proficient in everything, they are expected to have fluency in major business and technology issues. "Unless they want to be order-takers, [IT managers] should have a point of view on the business -- its strategy, its operations, and how it can be improved," says Hank Leingang, an IT strategy consultant and former CIO at Bechtel and Viacom.
Many IT managers focus solely on mastering new tech skills to increase their value to their employers -- a strategy that makes perfect sense, but only up to a point. Once you reach that point, you can damage your career by becoming viewed as only technically proficient and being perceived as unskilled in business planning and learning how to communicate and collaborate well with customers, coworkers, and service providers. But if you have a balance of these "hard" technology skills and "soft" business and people skills, you can go a long way toward insulating your career from recessionary woes.
Here are the seven essential survival skills for IT managers seeking to reinforce their position or springboard to greater responsibility.
Essential IT skill 1: Balance specialization and cross-functional expertise
If you become adept at disciplines such as global sourcing, enterprise architecture, or virtualization, you may find that your technical skills make you more valuable to a large organization -- for a while. But at some point, you may also hit a wall in your career. "What makes you strong as an individual contributor in the tech space doesn't necessarily prepare you for a leadership role," says Leingang.
What's often lacking is adaptability. "You have to be able to shift gears," says Kent Kushar, CIO of E&J Gallo Winery. You need cross-functional expertise and the ability to shift your mode to the situation at hand. A successful IT manager "must have a wider vision to better understand the business." That means being "part chameleon," he adds.
"When you get in front of salespeople, you need to be like them. When you get in front of technical people, you need to be comfortable there as well." Consider what management is thinking, he says: "Do you understand supply chain, HR, finance -- or are you a one-trick pony?"
Consider Ron Lamb, a former Accenture consultant and a seasoned IT executive who left a senior planning role at Safeway a few months ago. He's now interviewing for IT manager and industry opportunities, and is boning up on cloud computing and various types of financial models to keep himself sharp. "The people at the very top absolutely think that cross-functional experience is invaluable," he says. "They are looking for people who can deal with significant change or can take advantage of new opportunities."
Making the trade-off between specialization and cross-functional expertise is a leap of faith for some IT managers: Will they succeed at the new discipline? Will they have credibility in a management role with other IT workers who have been at this specialty longer? The truth is that you have to take a chance on expanding your range of expertise and, subsequently, make that leap of faith.