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7 skills every IT manager needs to survive the 2010s

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.

Essential IT skill 2: Become an arbiter of risk
Odds are they didn’t teach you about risk assessment in college. But as you seek higher positions of authority and responsibility in your organization, you’ll need to have this skill. If your superiors respect your risk awareness and mitigation abilities, they’ll view you more positively as senior management material.

If your organization is risk-tolerant, being a proponent of cutting-edge technologies may add business value. But there’s a strong chance that in the lean years your organization has become more risk-averse. So rather than position yourself as cutting-edge or conservative, you should offer the business management choices organized by degrees of risk and complexity, particularly with new tech investments. They’ll appreciate your ability to think this way — after all, it’s how executive managers think and decide.

That’s certainly the case at Gallo, which has instituted such thinking in its IT project evaluation process: “We have a business case discipline for IT projects that captures lifecycle costs and business risks before they get approved,” says Kushar.

“All IT managers and above have to understand risks and how to mitigate risks,” says Lamb, the former consultant. “Few organizations talk about it overtly. But it’s a requirement for all jobs and it’s as a smart manager it would be prudent to understand the risks and how to mitigate them.”

Essential IT skill 3: Build strong working relationships
Can you build strong working relationships with customers, coworkers, and suppliers? If not, you need to learn to do so.

In politics, the quality of charisma — or likeability, if you prefer — is a valuable trait. But in dealing with coworkers, it’s even more important to be respected. The trouble is, IT managers — just like everyone else — tend to be more concerned about whether they’re liked than whether they’re building a strong working relationship.

The difference? An IT manager should be able to level with a business “customer” by asking questions such as “What are you trying to accomplish and am I in the way?” You can build tremendous credibility in an organization by showing that you can listen. It’s a necessary step to achieving your ends.

Another area where you can demonstrate — and sharpen — your skills in building working relationships is in how you navigate the consolidation of suppliers as the IT industry matures. One consequence of that consolidation is that IT customers often must rely upon fewer key vendors, so there’s more time to develop deeper relationships. But as your choices diminish and you have fewer alternatives, the vendor gains more power over you, so you have to be better at extracting the most value from the smaller field of vendors. For IT managers, the bottom line is that managing a key vendor relationship effectively demonstrates your strategic value to an organization.

Essential IT skill 4: Embrace analytics
From operational metrics to supply chain data, from syndicated data to data from manufacturing systems, the science of analytics is becoming more pertinent to IT, says Gallo’s Kushar. Thus, he looks for IT managers who can create and understand data dashboards.

Lamb believes business analytics is a hot skill in many organizations: “How do you translate that data into something that will allow a businessperson to change his or her mind, to reach a decision point? Unless you can abstract information in a meaningful way, who cares?” Companies need IT managers who can extract such information.

Mastering business analytics not only establishes your technical chops, it closely aligns you with business partners, making it one of the most effective career survival techniques for IT managers.

Essential IT skill 5: Embrace enterprise architecture
Getting all the disparate pieces of IT to fit together smoothly is like solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. Lamb lauds IT managers with the skills to “deal outside of your domain to understand dependencies, to be able to communicate with business type of people.” For such IT managers, “enterprise architecture is the next level of structure from business and IT strategy.”

IT strategist Leingang agrees: “You have to have a working knowledge of [enterprise architecture] as CIO, and it’s a critical skill to have on the team.”

But “there isn’t much of a talent pool companies can go to — so somebody who is capable of broad thinking abut architecture is a gold mine right now,” asserts Vinnie Mirchandani, author of “The New Polymath” (Wiley, 2010), a book that examines how a Renaissance man or woman achieves innovation by applying domain expertise in multiple arenas.

Grooming enterprise architects is especially hard in verticals like manufacturing, where ERP is the dominant part of the enterprise portfolio, says Mirchandani. In such environments, CIOs don’t see a need for a full-time architect, given how much of the core architecture is defined within the ERP system. It’s also hard to build architecture skills in organizations where third parties such as outsourcers provide this expertise, he adds.

This talent availability is a double-edged sword: The scarcity can make those who learn enterprise architecture more valuable, but the company you currently work at may not provide the opportunity to gain architecture skills.

Essential IT skill 6: Move from project management to program management
Managing a project is a tactical skill set that is a proven starting point for IT managers. But as skills go, it’s also an easily replaceable commodity. The real skill is to use your project management capabilities to lead to a more strategic role in an organization: program management.

“Being a great project manager is a great way to star,” says Lamb. “From there you can get involved in program management.” But program management requires much stronger business skills than IT managers often have, especially in building business cases vital to obtaining funding and executive buy-in. He cites two examples of such missing business skills: understanding net present value (NPV) and internal rates of return (IRR).

Learning these skills can earn you “tickets to a boardroom, rather than standing outside,” says Lamb. But there’s an even bigger trick to it, which most aspiring managers often fail to consider: “If anyone asks, ‘Do you really believe in this business case?’ ask whether they want the political or nonpolitically correct answer. Those are career-changing situations.” Be prepared to give an honest assessment of the initiative and risk a disagreement with others for the chance to earn the respect of higher-ups in the organization.

Program management provides IT managers an opportunity to become a trusted advisor to business units, and that’s a key skill for anyone wanting to prove his or her strategic value. As you rise in your organization, recognize that what you manage also changes, says Ullrich, the recruiter: “From VP/director level, the ‘doing’ skills are different than the ‘leading’ skills. You can be a top-notch engineer, but as you get to a director level you have to be able to manage teams. It goes beyond project management to team leadership and how do you set the direction, motivate, and delegate.”

Essential IT skill 7: Actively communicate
In large organizations, it’s not unheard of for a CIO to work with a writer to convey ideas to various stakeholders such as employees or customers. Some CIOs even hire writers to tweet or blog for them. But what if you’re not yet a CIO? Are communication skills essential career survival skills? Absolutely.

“Think of all the IT workers — [it’s clear that] you can distinguish yourself with strong communications,” says Ullrich. “If you’re strong at communicating, you’ll get noticed,” she promises.

The keys to this skill are listening and effectively explaining: “It’s working with customers and understanding their requirements and what would help drive the business. It’s not just the project manager but the person who can communicate ideas and bridge the technology to business,” she says.

It’s all about having business value
There are countless ways to develop your career, but you can best succeed in an IT organization by continuing to find ways to add business value that makes you too desirable to lose. But you need to do the work: Attaining this bulletproof status requires a commitment on your part to embrace continuous learning — adding new skills, of both the hard and soft varieties — that continually up your game and improve your standing in the organization.

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