How to get your first IT leadership job

An IT veteran shares six essential steps to convince your organization that you're cut out for that IT leadership job
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how to get IT leadership job

“Are you sure you want this? Some days I wish I was just out on the floor, head buried into my problems and not dealing with everyone else’s.”

You have to be willing to take on the world's problems and not just your own.

This was what a client’s VP of software development said when I started taking on more of a leadership role within my account. To his credit, this sums up IT leadership succinctly. If you are looking to take this step in your career, you have to be willing to take on the world’s problems and not just your own. If that doesn’t sit well with you, there is no shame in opting out now. This isn’t for everyone.

[ Are you a rising IT leader? Read also: IT careers: Why you should embrace unexpected twists. ]

How to get an IT leadership job: 6 essentials

IT leadership can be a rewarding pursuit. But making the leap can seem daunting, and it can be difficult to know where to begin. Let’s explore six ways you can chart the next phase in your IT career.

1. Exceed expectations

Performance in your current position serves as a direct reflection on how you will perform in your next one. If you are late on assignments, frequently cut corners or are generally unreliable, why would you deserve a promotion? Exceeding expectations isn’t an occasional act, but something you should strive for in everything you do. If you make it a habit and a mindset, before long it will become second nature.

To consistently exceed expectations, you need to grow yourself. You need to be the best developer you can be and come to the table with innovative solutions that help the company address not only the task at hand but also future needs. You have to broaden your knowledge across the organization to discover how things could be done better. You should always ask how your actions are adding value to the organization.

2. Make your intentions clear

Exceeding expectations may put you on the radar of the right people, but unless you voice that you want more from your career, your manager may just think you are a sensational developer who wants to live out their days camped out in front of the code editor. If you want to take that next step into leadership, let your intentions be known.

Tell your manager this is a goal you are actively working toward, and that you are open to taking on more responsibility to ready yourself. Also, ask them to help mentor you along the way. Ask if there are steps you need to take that you aren’t seeing. If you have deficiencies in your skillset that need to be shored up, ask your manager to highlight them and give you guidance to improve. Make your manager an active participant in your success.

3. Network more

Expanding your network and circle of influence is a critical piece of stepping into leadership.

Adopting the role of leader isn’t a smooth transition for every technologist. Those people who are more isolated and soft-spoken will need to live outside their comfort zone. Some brains work differently so you have to challenge yourselves to acquire the necessary people skills to effectively communicate and lead. Expanding your network and circle of influence is a critical piece of stepping into leadership.

Growing your personal skills is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s imperative you know how to deal with people. You need to know how to motivate them, what drives their actions, and how they will react. Having a good understanding of psychology is an important part of being an effective leader.

4. Show initiative

Leaders don’t wait for people to bring them opportunity. They look around the organization and find ways to make it better. If you look hard enough, you’ll find opportunities sprouting up everywhere. Some make sense to tackle alone; some may be a wider initiative. Regardless, it’s imperative to elevate those ideas to your manager to discuss which make sense to work towards and which may have business challenges that put them out of reach.

The key is to show initiative and put yourself in a place to make an impact for real organizational change.

Showing initiative doesn’t mean you have to be a fountain of great ideas. You can also talk to your boss to see where you can help out. Maybe there is a key presentation coming up that could use some legwork to put together. Maybe it’s assembling an estimate or a statement of work. This allows you to alleviate your manager’s workload, learn how to do these critical next level tasks, and show success performing these leadership functions.

Don’t let your present job suffer when you take on these extra responsibilities. It will require extra time and effort to balance your current workload with these new tasks. This is valuable on-the-job training necessary to get where you want to go.

5. Practice self-promotion

How can you be rewarded for good work that no one knows you are doing?

Working in a dynamic environment, many of your peers are doing things to make an impact every day. In the past, I would get frustrated that my initiatives weren’t getting noticed. Ultimately, the failure rested on me: I failed to highlight those achievements. How can you be rewarded for good work that no one knows you are doing?

Trumpeting your accomplishments can seem unnatural, and certainly falls outside of the comfort zone of many people. It’s something you have to push past for the good of your career. When it comes to self-promotion, everyone has to find the vehicle that works best for them. Setting a regular meeting is ideal if your manager has time to work with you one-on-one. A status report can also be effective for those time conscious individuals. For these reports, less is always more. Get to the essence of the issue. If your manager wants to find out more, they’ll ask. Providing status updates not only shines a spotlight on your accomplishments, but also allows your manager to provide feedback and direction. This ensures your efforts compliment the needs of the company, and the hard work you are putting in is making progress towards your long-term goals.

6. Lean into mentorship

We’ve talked about using your manager as a facilitator for professional growth. Even without an official label, they are serving as your mentor or sponsor. How are you mentoring others?

Leaders are rarely born. It is a skill that has to be learned and cultivated like any other. Leadership opportunities can be sparse in the corporate environment, and elevating someone to management is too late to assess if they are up for the job. Mentorship allows future leaders to develop these skills in a low-risk environment while working with senior-level managers for guidance and to polish their approach.

Some organizations have formal mentorship programs you can volunteer to participate in. For those that don’t, find ways to mentor junior or mid-level associates to help them achieve their career goals.

Many building blocks can put you on the path to IT leadership, but ultimately you have to want it. You have to want to shoulder greater responsibilities. This pursuit will frequently push you outside of your comfort zone and ask you to grow your skill set. You’ll have to embrace the organization’s goals as your own and become invested in the success of the company. Much is asked of leaders, but it is a path worth pursuing.

[ Want more data and advice on today's IT job market? Read: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.

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