Secrets of Climbing the Career Ladder!

Many people I meet ask me how to get ahead in their job. They ask me, what is the secret to career success?  Why it is that out of two people with similar skills and experience in an organisation one moves ahead, while the other stays behind? In this article I shall share what I have learnt from my own career experiences and what I have observed from others.

Bring the Right Attitude to the Job

If you have the right attitude to the job your colleagues and bosses will notice you. Managers will prefer to choose employees to work with who are positive, rather than those who complain all the time or criticise others for their perceived failings.

However, bringing the right attitude to the job is not just about being positive. Many people don’t make the effort to understand what their role is or what the job is meant to achieve. You should ask yourself, how does my job fit within the service delivery or the value creation process? For example, if you are an analyst is your job just gathering requirements or it is about understanding needs and devising alternative solutions to meet these needs? If you are a service desk person, is your job answering calls or it is about proving service so that other people can get on doing their job with minimum delay? Understanding the job means understanding what is valued by your customers, managers, and colleagues; not just reading the job description.

If you understand your job, stay positive, and show initiative, you are more likely to move ahead.

Get Things Done

Doing the job well is important, however as many employees do not properly understand the tasks assigned to them, the quality of their work suffers.  In order to avoid this situation, make sure you understand the task assigned to you. Sometimes your manager may assume that you understand what is expected from you, even though you do not. You should consult manager or other colleagues to clarify what is expected of you and then make sure you meet your commitments. Don’t over-promise and under deliver. Instead, get better at prioritising work; not everything that is urgent is important. Find time to get the important, but non urgent, items done.

However, don’t spring surprises on your manager or your colleagues. If you are running behind in your tasks or you encounter unexpected difficulties, inform your manager first. If you spring surprises up on your manager, you will lose the trust of both your manager and your colleagues, . If the manager cannot rely on you to get the job done, this will give them less reason to promote you.

Take Ownership

If you are on a stalled project, do you wait for someone to take the initiative to fix a problem and get things moving along? Leaders don’t wait for others to act, assume blame, or take charge. Instead, leaders take responsibility for the problem, even when it is not their fault. Taking ownership empowers you to achieve results. In most places I have worked, those who are most likely to succeed are proactive in finding and solving problems and act with increasing autonomy. Every job has several problems that are waiting to be fixed.  Find the problems, which you can fix, and go the extra mile by taking ownership of these problems. Taking on extra responsibilities will make you stronger and more action-oriented.

Improve Yourself

Self-improvement is a key to professional success. There are many different skills required for managerial roles, some of these you may have others you may not. Always look for ways to improve your skills. For many technology professionals, technical skills can only take you so far. To succeed, you must have an understanding of how the business operates. If you are aware of how areas, such as customer service, sales process, accounting, marketing and credit, work, you will better be able to relate to the business executives. This will improve your communication skills within the organisation and enable you to provide better solutions to problems.

Keep an eye on new developments in your profession. In the fast moving technology arena, new technologies, new methodologies, and new techniques are changing the way work gets done. If you stay abreast of developments in your area of interest, this will help you to identify the skills or knowledge you will need to improve your work and achieve success.

Be open to feedback from others. Feedback will tell you where you need to improve. If you fail to accept mistakes  or become defensive, your colleagues will stop giving you feedback.

Take the opportunity to participate in structured development programs with job rotations, if your organisation offers these. Otherwise, volunteer for assignments that will help you broaden your role or skill base. From my experience, opportunities that take you into completely new areas can often be the most rewarding. Experience different functional roles or participate on cross functional teams. Major projects or transformation activities open up a number of new opportunities that may not otherwise be available. Make use of these opportunities to gain new skills.

Ultimately, the best way to check if you are improving is to take the ‘resume test’. If at the end of the year you can honestly add 1-3 new achievements or capabilities to your resume, you are doing well.

Understand Your Manager’s Job

Managers do not consider employees for promotion solely on the basis of how well they do their current job. Managers will also assess how well you are likely to perform at the next higher level/s. Employees are promoted when they are seen to be ready to the job at the next level. Jobs at higher levels require different capabilities to what are needed to succeed at current level. If you understand what your manager’s role is and what skills or knowledge is required at their level, you can aim to acquire these skills and demonstrate them in your current role. When your manager is absent, you could volunteer to act in their role, or you could take on assignments that let you further develop the skills required for managerial positions.

Develop Relationships

In order to achieve success, you need to build relationships with a wide range of people in your organisation. Relationships with people both within and outside your own department can help you develop a better perspective about your role and the business. As a result, you will hear about opportunities and problems earlier than you normally would. Building positive relationships with your colleagues will also better enable you to balance different agendas and priorities.

Get Noticed!

Let your network know about your team’s success. There is a balance between sharing your team’s success story and bragging, so don’t overdo it. Let your successes speak for themselves (with a little bit of assistance from you).

Promotions don’t usually take place based on one person’s opinion, your manager, your peers, and other executives all influence the decision. In order to get ahead, you need to do more than what is expected from you. If you are seen as one who takes ownership and gets things done, you will be noticed.

Good luck! Remember, successful people shape their own luck!

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Fad-free performance management

IT magazine articles and whitepapers regularly publish articles such as, “Building a high performing team”, “Reinventing the workforce”, “Transforming the organisation” and the like. These articles have stories from large (usually overseas) companies where the CIO has turned an under performing organisation around (with the help of a brand name consulting firm with their brand name methodology). Local CIOs and IT managers read these articles and begin to believe they too need a major transformation program in order to turn their IT organisation into a “world-class” “high-performing” organisation.

Amidst all this hype about transformation and reinvention IT organisations forget to check if the organisation is performing the basics of people and performance management effectively. I have seen several IT organisations in which managers and team leaders are unclear about the requirements of their jobs. Apart from the mandatory annual performance review these employees are not given any feedback about how well they are performing their roles. If you ask an employee how their role supports the IT departments goals (or business goals) they often have no idea.

IT managers give many excuses as to why their employees have little understanding of their roles. Firstly, as IT managers come from technical ranks they have no people management training. Secondly, IT managers don’t like to have difficult conversations with their staff. Thirdly, many managers themselves are not clear about the business and IT strategy goals. No matter what the excuse, the end result always leads to the same outcome, an under-performing IT organisation! So what can be done? Here are some thoughts on how CIOs and IT managers can begin to manage performance.

IT managers give many excuses as to why their employees have little understanding of their roles. Firstly, as IT managers come from technical ranks they have no people management training. Secondly, IT managers don’t like to have difficult conversations with their staff. Thirdly, many managers themselves are not clear about the business and IT strategy goals. No matter what the excuse, the end result always leads to the same outcome, an under-performing IT organisation! So what can be done? Here are some thoughts on how CIOs and IT managers can begin to manage performance.

Five fad-free steps

Here are five fad-free steps to get to high performing teams. These are:

  1. Clarify the role,
  2. Understand customer needs,
  3. Improve things you manage
  4. Develop your team and
  5. Perform the role in the right way

1. Clarify the role

Every organisation and role exists to perform a function. At a basic level, the IT group normally exists to enable business by providing effective technology solutions that support business activities. The IT group is also responsible for running the technology operations in a cost effective, reliable and secure manner.  Each function within IT must directly or indirectly support these goals. Some teams focus on understanding business goals and needs; designers design solutions that are fit for purpose, developers build these solutions and operations staff ensure these solutions run reliably. Thus, understanding the role purpose is really not that complicated.

Most organisations have job descriptions of some kind. If they don’t, then the first step is to create one. I believe every job function, especially management roles, should meet the needs of the customers, improve people/process/technologies and work and behave in the ‘right way’ (team work, respect, enthusiasm etc). Sounds obvious don’t it? However, you would be surprised how many people don’t understand these expectations because many job descriptions fail to make these expectations clear.

2. Understand the needs of the customers

Every role has a customer. It exists to serve someone. Even the managing director has to serve the shareholders/ board. Most IT roles have internal customers. However, with the emergence of e-commerce, Internet banking and similar services, IT in fact services ‘real’ business customers. In addition to the direct customer needs, IT roles also need to understand the organisation’s needs. These are typically expressed via strategies, values, standards and architecture/ design principles.

Many IT people can become so inwardly focussed (because of processes, departments and skill-sets) that they forget that their role is to serve the needs of the customers. For infrastructure staff, their customers could be applications teams and for architecture staff, designers. Identifying who the customers are and ensuring that their needs are understood is the key to good performance.

3. Improve ‘things’ that you manage

Every manager is responsible for people, processes that control how the work is done and technology (e.g. applications and infrastructure assets). These elements together determine the effectiveness of service delivery and level of customer satisfaction. Even technicians and developers have systems that they look after, manage, fix, control.

Everyone is expected to improve the assets that they manage. This is fundamental part of a professional’s job and not an optional extra! There are many ways improvements can be made such as keeping applications maintainable, improving flexibility, reducing running costs, streamlining processes and improving service levels.

What if employees don’t have the authority or resources to make these improvements? At the very least, employees are expected to show how ‘things’ are better this year than the last and what they have done to make a difference, given the resources available to them. Ultimately, it is the role of managers to convince the ‘powers-to-be’ that improving the assets they manage is an integral part of the job of each employee and support the employees in this endeavour.

4. Develop your team

Improving their team and the people they manage are arguably the most important outcomes managers should be expected to demonstrate. Helping people grow, helping them improve their skills, giving them opportunities learn, gain more experience and deal with new challenges is not only important for the organisation but also for the manager. It helps the manager do their own job better and make a difference.

Developing people involves balancing individual aspirations and capability with the goals of the organisation as well as seeking development opportunities and empowering staff (i.e. giving them the tools and resources to succeed) where appropriate. The key to successful empowerment is to give staff information about the mission, objectives, strategy and dynamics of the organisation so that they can make the right decisions. Successful empowerment also involves providing support for staff if they fail, so that they can learn from their mistakes.

The key to managing for performance is to identify talent in employees and provide the right opportunities and rewards for these employees to take on more responsibilities. One organisation I knew measured managers on whether they were “exporters” or “importers” of talent.

5. Performing the role in the ‘right way’

Many IT people see their role in as being purely technical because the technical part of the job is what they are most comfortable with. However, customers and others expect more from IT staff than just technical expertise. Customers want better service and better solutions. They want IT staff to be responsive, reliable, collaborative and demonstrate team work. Many job descriptions and managers just assume that their staff know ‘the right way’ and don’t set correct expectations or address customer service in performance feedback discussions. This does not have to be a complicated process. I have seen some managers discuss these issues regularly in team meetings in which key customers and peers are invited to share their expectations. As a result, IT staff is encouraged to develop team values and behaviours.

Managing for performance

Most people want to do a good job. It is the manager’s role to clarify what a ‘good job’ or good performance means and how it would be measured. Clarifying the role expectations is the first step in managing for performance. Putting this into practice involves effort i.e. not just in formal performance reviews, but also in regular interactions with their teams.

Managing for performance need not be difficult. One does not need fads or big transformation programs or big slogans to get it right. People see through these big words when actions on the ground fail to match the slogans and strategies.

Keep it simple and fad-free! Get the basics right and ‘high performing teams’ will emerge.

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Managing talent with 9-box grid

Career pathsWhen we think of talent management, we immediately think of managing bright and high potential employees. But although ‘star talent’ are important in any business, just managing stars is not enough. A high performing team means managers have to understand the performance and contribution from all the team and manage the talent pool. Often talent management is the missing ingredient from many IT strategies. While great emphasis is given to obtaining hot technical skills managing existing talent appears to be forgotten.

I came across two management tools, one is called the ‘Career Crossroads Model’ and other is a ‘9 box-grid’. I found these tools useful with the challenge of managing leadership talent. The Career Crossroads Model also helps guide the long-term career development of individuals in the context of the organisation’s needs. I hope you will also find these useful.

Many approaches to strengthening leadership capabilities focus on individual ‘stars’ rather than the whole leadership bench. Leaders drive results and if there are gaps in their ability, performance suffers. If the gaps are known, development plans can be created.

Career Crossroads Model

As an individual progresses though careers, s/he progress through a number of natural crossroads. Usually the individual will advance from ‘managing oneself’ to ‘managing others’, then ‘managing functions’, to ‘managing business’ and so on. Each of these crossroads needs different skills and job experience. For example, technical skills are required to manage oneself whilst P&L management and business strategy skills are needed to manage a business. Individuals step into a new role, grow in that role and get ready for the next career crossroad. In good organisation practices there is no instant move from one level to another at a much higher level (e.g. from managing oneself to becoming a functional manager). Each crossroad is also called a ‘turn’ opportunity.

Performance and potential

Good potential leads to good performance. However, potential is not an absolute measure. In an earlier article, I had discussed the idea of potential being a combination of demonstrated capabilities, ambition/motivation (to take on the challenges at the new crossroads level) and alignment with the organisation’ needs in terms of career progression. The Crossroads Model helps assess potential based on prior performance. When an individual does not have all three aspects of potential, performance suffers.

Performance

In judging performance there needs to a clear and complete job definition. It must define what is required to be successful in the role as well as what customers, shareholders, team and colleagues require. If the job is described as a circle and each dimension of performance done well is shown as a line, the following representations of performance emerge.

Exceptional performance meets performance criteria in many job dimensions, whilst full performance meets performance criteria in all job dimensions (note: this is a simplified example, in reality complications such as exceeding some dimensions and not meeting others can arise). Exceptional performers need to be given larger jobs otherwise they will leave and find challenges elsewhere. Developing performers on the other hand, need more time in the role and need help to improve their performance.

Levels of Potential

There are three levels of potential: Turn, Growth and Mastery.
1.Turn Potential – The ability and desire to move to a job at a higher level on the Career Crossroads Model.
2.Growth Potential – The ability and desire to move to a bigger/more complex job on the same level.
3.Mastery potential – The ability and desire to balance current and changing job requirements and deepen experience and specialisation on the same current level.

The 9-box grid

The 9-box potential performance grid provides an easy way to plot leadership talent in the organisation on a single page. It’s a great way to create an open dialogue amongst a leadership team. Open discussions and multiple perspectives allow better calibration of ratings and expectations and a shared ownership of the organisation’s talent pool. It’s a great way to identify development needs and succession planning opportunities.

Using the 9-box grid

The grid is used in two ways; to plan individual career development and to plan and manage the talent pool in the organisation. There is development action associated with each of the 9 boxes. In brief these are:

  1. Ready for a move to the next level within the next 12 months.
  2. Move to a larger role on the same level within 12-24 months.
  3. Coach and develop to be exceptional performer.
  4. Leverage mastery for the benefit of the organisation. Reward and recognise. Use their help to develop high performers.
  5. Manage /coach to improve performance.
  6. These can be employees who have moved to a new level. Coach/ develop to continue to have a turn potential.
  7. Develop to become exceptional performers.
  8. Assess the reasons for lack of performance. Coach/develop to become fully performing.
  9. As above or move out in the next 12 months.

Effective organisations have a mix of people in all the boxes. Many organisations just focus on the top talent (boxes 1-3) and forget the needs of the people in other boxes. Employees in the boxes 4, 5 and 7 are valuable employees who can have deep expertise in their areas. The challenge is to keep the skills of these employees up to date as business and technology changes. Over time the market forces and change would push the performance levels up, so staff would need to keep up to maintain full performance. Managers ought to help employees improve performance as well as try and lift growth potential of the team.

Ideal talent mix

Different business situations demand different mixes of talent.
Start-up – An organisation in the start-up or high growth phases would need to have a much higher proportion of high potential individuals than one in the mature stages. Start-ups require a high number of ready to grow employees and leaders as well as seasoned professionals (box 4).
Growing business – A growing business needs a high proportion of exceptional performers and a pipeline of talent to move to the next crossroad levels as the business grows and new opportunities emerge.
Consolidation – A business in a consolidation mode
would not have many opportunities for people to take on larger jobs. Hence, they would need lower numbers in boxes 1, 2, 3. There may be more people in boxes 8 and 9 as they try to do more with less and raise the bar.
Normal Business – In a normal business, the ideal mix may look like the below. There would be smaller proportion of high performers and low performers with the middle performers / mid potential staff in higher numbers.

Conclusion

The 9-box model provides an easy and effective way to manage talent. It helps identify the category of the employee and tailor appropriate development plans to groom them. When there is a shortage of talent it is even more important to use the model to optimise performance and help employees grow within the organisation. What I like about the model is that it does not solely focus on high fliers but also recognises the important role played by the ‘solid’ performers who keep the organisation ticking along.

Developing high potential leaders

Introduction

What differentiates between success and mediocrity in organisations? Studies show that the high performing leaders are the ones most relied upon to drive the business performance in the years to come. Whether it is the delivery of strategic projects, cost stripping, or managing customer relationships, high performing leaders are the difference between success and mediocrity. High performing employees have a disproportionately higher impact on results. This means that identifying and developing future high performers is a critical priority for any organisation. CIOs have a responsibility to find and nurture these star performers in IT organisations.

While it is easier to name current high performers, identifying high potential future leaders (i.e. stars) is not so easy. Further, once identified, developing and retaining potential leaders is another challenge. This article aims to help CIOs develop  strategies to find and develop future IT leaders.

Future leaders will most probably emerge from today’s high performing employees. Current performance is a predictor of future performance. Indeed 93% of the stars are high performers. Some believe the potential depends on innate ability and the right experience. Leadership skills and ambition to succeed are also seen as indicators of potential. CIO Executive Board conducted a major study in 2006, defining a high potential employee as someone who has a 75% chance of being a top quartile performer at the next level (e.g. junior to middle management or middle to senior management). Only about 8% of the employees have a meaningful chance of being a top performer.

The study found that three indicators of high potential are strong ability, engagement and aspiration to succeed.

  • Ability is a combination of innate and learned skills. These include both technical and interpersonal skills as well as the ability to learn new skills and behaviours. Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful from unsuccessful executives.
  • Aspiration indicates to what extent the employee wants to advance and influence, seeks recognition and financial rewards and enjoys the job.
  • Engagement shows the commitment to the organisation, willingness to go the extra mile and intent to stay with the organisation.

Employees who don’t have a good balance of these three attributes tend to fall short. “Unengaged stars” have the ability and aspiration but are not committed to the company (high flight risk). “Dreamers” have aspiration and engagement but lack the ability to succeed at the next level. While “mis-aligned stars” have the ability and engagement but no aspiration to succeed and rise.

Figure 2 – Falling short of the ‘star’ potential

Understanding the profile of current high performing leaders, who are at a higher level in the organisation, on these three dimensions provides a good benchmark profile. Assess how employees on the level below score on these attributes, using feedback from managers, peers and employees. Compare to the benchmark and then make a judgement on how likely these are to be top performers at the next level.

Case for IT leadership development

In a recent Australian IT leadership survey by Donovan Leadership, many opinion leaders said that the professional development of technology leaders was best done within a framework that links performance assessment, and peer and client feedback with the values and leadership behaviours of the company. Opinion leaders believe that many innovative approaches are being used internationally for leadership development.

The changing technology landscape is increasing the need for developing future IT leaders. The major generational shift associated with baby boomers retiring and the exponential rate of technology change is a leadership challenge. Web 2.0, social networking and trends like Software as a service means IT leaders need to give up control and accept a more collaborative leadership style.

Not developing IT leaders will increase the gap between IT and business leaders. We may find people being promoted who don’t have the right people management and commercial skills or understanding of how the business works. Attracting and retaining Gen-Y and other new talent will become even harder.

Development Strategies

Although only about 8% employees are likely to become high potential future leaders, this percentage varies greatly between organisations. Organisation culture (quality, openness, recognition and perseverance) improves employee potential. The quality of an employee’s managers (both present and past) also influences potential.  Improvements in the culture and leadership will increase the proportion of emerging leaders.

Multiple strategies are used for the development of high potential future leaders. These include classroom training, group learning, selected job assignments and coaching / mentoring.

Classroom training and Group learning

  1. Provide training to the emerging leaders in different facets of general business. Understanding finance / accounting, marketing and people management as well as industry specific training on supply chain, credit etc will help them get a fuller understanding of the business dynamics and help learn the language of the business.
  2. Leading graduate universities in Australia and overseas run special management development programs. Depending on your budgets these are great ways to expand horizons, interact with other leaders and obtain new perspectives.
  3. Clarify how senior leaders are expected to behave. Let these leaders see how values and behaviours demonstrated by senior leaders support corporate strategy, culture and priorities. Encourage greater interaction with influential leaders from within and outside. Use guest speakers to educate and challenge.
  4. IT staff are keen to develop their technical skills but don’t show similar interest in their personal development or soft skills. This requires a willingness to take oneself on a realistic personal journey of reflection and learning from the process. IT leadership development programs would need stronger focus on people leadership development.

Selected job Assignments

  1. Involve future leaders in real business challenges involving strategy, values and execution. Being open about the challenges with high potential leaders develops trust and makes them feel involved. Involve them in solutions. They want to see how they can make a difference.
  2. Use “stretch” assignments and task forces to encourage, challenge and take risks. These new experiences will give a rich learning environment. Don’t just think about assignments within IT, consider cross-functional areas to broaden focus and develop relationships outside IT.
  3. Where right consider experiences beyond company boundaries and work with external stakeholders. Industry forums, task forces and secondments may be considered in the development plans.

Coaching and mentoring

  1. Actively involve senior leaders from IT and outside as role models, coaches and mentors to play a role in the development process. Just like elite athletes, high potential employees can benefit from coaching. A good rapport between the employee and the coach is necessary for effective coaching.
  2. Provide support during the inevitable ups and downs. Emerging leaders will experience more changes in roles and assignments than others. These will bring new challenges and at times create self-doubt. High performers have high standards for own performance. Support from managers and a mentor is critical to avoid burnout. Using skip level (next senior manager) reviews is a good way to keep an eye on the issues and barriers in employee development.

Other tips

  1. Assign clear accountability to a senior manager for development of the high potential emerging leaders. Align with corporate programs where possible but don’t delegate all responsibility to the HR department
  2. Focus on junior talent as well as the seniors. Sometimes the seniors get more attention as a part of succession planning and other processes. Create early identification and development opportunities for junior talent. Encourage their upward movement.
  3. Remuneration – show the these employees that they are valued. Give them both recognition and rewards. More frequent performance based pay rises are not unusual. Ensure retention by keeping the remuneration levels higher than others. In tough times, companies have to be more creative with the incentives.

For a detailed discussion and/or information on strategies to develop your high potential future IT Leaders, please contact the author.