Career and Leadership Lessons
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Career and Leadership Lessons

Laurence A Liss, CIO, Emeritus and Andrea J Markstrom, CIO, Blank Rome LLP

Working in the technology field for a collective 75+ years has taught us what we believe to be some important career lessons. What follows is a brief description of these lessons and how they have helped us in our careers.

Have confidence in yourself and be willing to take risks

There’s an old saying that perfection is the enemy of the good. Former mentors told us that, while we may have occasionally made mistakes, it wasn’t a bad thing if we learned from them. Since we usually accomplished a lot with good results, an occasional mistake was understandable. This gave us the confidence and willingness to take some prudent risks without fearing it would affect our careers negatively. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If an opportunity is presented, assess and be confident in asking for what you want. A mentor once said, ‘You are at the Head of your Boardroom Table and it is up to you to succeed’. Be determined, take the leap and be mindful and learn throughout the journey.

Hire the best and brightest, and don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people smarter than yourself

Some managers think if they hire someone smarter than themselves, their position might somehow be threatened. Our experience is quite the opposite. Surrounding yourself with the best people you can find will help you be more successful.

  Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone 

When you are short staffed and anxious to fill an open position, there can be a tendency to "settle" for a less-than-good fit. It's at least as important to identify a person who fits into your organization's culture as it is to find someone with the required skills. Involve your team in the hiring process to ensure the candidate fits within your team’s composition. A strong customer service orientation and strong interpersonal skills need to be part of the hiring criteria. Be patient throughout the recruiting process and hire the candidate that encompasses the entire package that includes both the soft and technical skills. Taking the time to hire the ‘right’ candidate will save you time in the long term.

Let go of the technical!

Those of us who have come up through the ranks often have succeeded because we had strong technical skills, and we have enjoyed employing those skills. However, once you are promoted into a managerial role, you need to let go of the technical and focus on overseeing those who work for you. Engage with your team to understand their motivation and career aspirations and empower them by providing challenging assignments and encourage training. Their success will ensure your own.

Make friends and form alliances, but stay above political infighting

We have found that the best way to establish and solidify relationships is to help others be successful, be they peers, superiors or subordinates. Allies in high places are a good thing, of course, and helping your peers and subordinates, who could be promoted to influential positions, eventually, could be beneficial in the long run. Take the time to build and maintain relationships, and get to know your customer. We have found that with solid, meaningful relationships, false perceptions or challenges can be overcome and the entire organization ‘wins’.

A little luck never hurts, being in the right place at the right time, but “chance favors the prepared mind.”

You have heard others say, “Well, he or she was lucky to get that opportunity.” Our experience has been that, more often than not, successful people make their own luck by looking for new opportunities and then going after them when appropriate. If you keep yourself well informed, the likelihood is you will better recognize a good opportunity when you see it and have the perspective to decide if it’s a good one for you.

Treat everyone with respect and build credibility

If you don’t treat everyone respectfully, it no doubt will come back to haunt you. This should be the case regardless of the person’s level. If you gain a reputation of being disrespectful of subordinates and peers, your career will likely be negatively impacted. The best way to build credibility is to demonstrate your integrity, over time, by keeping your promises and not promising on something you can’t deliver. Take the time to recognize people and say ‘thank you’. A few words of recognition goes a long way.

Ensure your people are challenged and fairly compensated

While these concepts may seem obvious, it's sometimes easier to say than do. We have been blessed with rather low turnover and long tenures. We've concluded the reasons for this is that most people just want to enjoy what they're doing, be appreciated for it, and be reasonably compensated.

In some positions, keeping people challenged can be difficult, but most technology people want to learn new things and have an opportunity to be involved with the latest technology. So, the trick is to involve them as much as possible with new projects, but also to build goals into their jobs that they find interesting and challenging.

Compensating people fairly sounds basic, but agreeing on what's fair is the challenge. Salary surveys just ensure you're in the ballpark, but there are many other components to compensation, and the important thing is that, when your staff adds up all the pieces, they think they are getting a fair shake. We also need to encourage our staff to share their concerns about compensation levels.

Instill customer service attitudes in the staff

We all say and try to do this, but it takes hiring people with the right attitudes, and then consistent, repetitive communication with the staff about what this means. There are a couple of ways we measure our success in this regard. Periodically, we do customer surveys of the whole firm. Our help desk ticketing system also sends out feedback requests when a ticket is closed. We then run reports on these by individual help desk member to see how they are doing and if there were any problems with the handling of a call. We often follow up with our customers to ensure we are meeting their needs and providing excellent customer service.

Establish your Board of Directors

There is a phrase that goes, ‘feedback is a gift’. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, guidance and insight. Surround yourself with people that will give you honest and candid feedback. You can look at this support network as your own personal ‘Board of Directors’. These people are interested in helping you succeed and provide you a ‘safe’ space to talk freely about lessons learned and offer invaluable advice and insight.

Lead Your Team vs. Manage Your Team

Similar to how a conductor leads their orchestra, empower your team to do what they do best and that is, execute on your vision. Lead your team; don’t manage your team. This entails describing your vision and expectations, focusing on strategy and outcomes, setting priorities and removing obstacles, and defining a clear direction. It is then up to your team to plan, organize and execute. If you dive into the details, then you are managing your team and are not providing them the opportunity to grow and develop. Make sure you are ‘available’ when they need you. It is important to be present and listen and explain the ‘why’, and then let them figure out the ‘how’. Explore the potential within your team and watch them blossom. It is a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

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