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7 career milestones you'll meet on the CIO and IT management track

Most senior IT leaders achieve specific milestones on their way to the corner office. Leaders who have charted their course share firsthand advice on what's worked for them.

Becoming an IT leader requires knowledge, skill, confidence, and a considerable amount of ambition. Not everyone is cut out to be a CIO, CTO, or other C-level IT executive, but those who feel the need to lead and succeed settle for nothing less.

"IT professionals should be more diligent than other professions when it comes to setting career goals and actively managing to meet those goals," observes Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, a company that provides project management and agile software development training services. "IT is such a dynamic and fast-paced profession that those who do not set and meet those goals are destined to be left behind."

Anyone planning a career that leads to the top of the IT organization pyramid will encounter seven critical milestones along the path. Failing or underachieving at any of these points will likely delay or even derail a once-promising management ascension.

Here's a look at each career milestone—and how you can tackle each challenge and come out on top:

1. You're assigned your first supervisory position. You're a boss now, but that doesn't mean you have to be aloof or unfriendly. Yet you also shouldn't try to be everyone’s buddy. After all, if it becomes necessary at some point to discipline, demote, or reassign an employee, having a close friendship with the individual can make the task difficult and uncomfortable. This is particularly true if you “moved up through the ranks” and are supervising recent co-workers.

The important thing is to treat your staff reasonably and fairly. Ask for feedback and input. You can't know everything, and displaying your ignorance on a critical issue only creates staff dissension and resentment. "My boss was promoted into a new role, and I was selected to replace him," Zucker recalls. Like many first-time managers, Zucker was ill-prepared to manage. "One of my biggest mistakes in that first new job was thinking that somehow I became smarter just because I was now the manager."

2. You propose a brilliant idea to top management. Pitching a well-crafted plan to help the organization make or save money is a proven way to accelerate one's climb up the corporate ladder. Just make sure you analyze your proposal from every angle, because if it's not well-planned, you'll probably fail. Also make sure that the idea hasn't been proposed before and rejected for a reason that your idea doesn't somehow solve.

Timing is important, too. The worst thing you can do is present your idea at the same moment bad news arrives or when corporate chiefs are pondering a major decision. "When an opportunity arises at work, be aggressive in getting access to learning," advises Harley Lippman, CEO of Genesis10, a professional technology services firm specializing in staffing, workforce optimization, and domestic outsourcing solutions. "Invest the time and sweat equity to learn and build those new skill sets."

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3. You make your first presentation. As your career moves forward, there will be many times when you need to make a presentation about a new product, service, or industry trend. But before you create your first PowerPoint slide, consider the people who will be viewing your presentationGiving a presentation to a small group of co-workers looks and feels very different from a presentation made before prospective customers or at an industry event.

Regardless of the setting, it's important to focus on your presentation's goal. Are you informing your audience about a new topic? Are you trying to persuade them to think or behave differently? No matter what you're aiming at, always stick to the facts, don't meander from your goal, and avoid attempts at humor that will likely draw attention away from your message.

4. You lead a major project. You're really flashing your all-star credentials when top management picks you to head a major IT project. Whether it's leading the deployment of a critical new platform, heading up a network redesign, or evaluating an important new technology, your first big project tests your ability to build teams, manage schedules, set budgets, and negotiate deals.

To achieve effective project management, there’s no substitute for tested practices. These include running a strategic and disciplined project management team and establishing rigorous processes for managing requirements engineering and change requests. Seek out mentors with successful project management experience and follow their advice, and you'll be well-positioned for success. "Organizations are pickier now than they ever were, having less patience for technologists to learn on the job, making this undertaking even more difficult," Lippman observes.

5. You reach the pinnacle: appointment to an IT leadership postYour years of planning and hard work have finally paid off. You've been selected to rise to a CIO, CTO, or some other C-level IT post.

But your career planning doesn't stop here. Now it's time to secure your leadership position and heighten your industry recognition. "Ensure that you are never letting your seat get too comfortable and your skills becoming stale," Lippman suggests. "One must thrive on change. One must invest their own personal time and effort into continual growth and learning."

6. Someone tries to steal you away from your current employer. The offer for a new job can arrive in any of several ways, such as an email, a phone call, a LinkedIn message, or a chance meeting at an industry event. At first, you're flattered—then hesitant. Whatever you do, don't immediately accept the proposal. Express your appreciation and then ask for the offer to be presented in writing, including details on compensation, title, responsibilities, travel requirements, and other job- and career-oriented factors. Then weigh any contractual obligations you may have to your current organization. Finally, inform your current employer. If a counteroffer is presented, judge it on its merits and then decide whether it's better for you to stay or go.

7. You decide to leave your leadership post. All good things must come to an end. No one can expect to be a leader forever. Yet retirement day doesn't have to mark the end of your career. It can, in fact, move you toward even greater respect and income as you put decades' worth of knowledge and experience to work solving problems for other organizations.

Zucker points to himself as an example. "For the past year, I have been providing instruction and advisory consulting services," he says. Zucker misses leading but otherwise has no regrets. "I am sharing my years of experience with others, and that is a gift," he explains.

Last word. Take your career into your own hands, Lippman advises. "IT is not a profession for someone who wants to find somewhere to sit down and be comfortable with what they are doing," he notes. "The best take it upon themselves to continually grow and evolve."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.