Making it up the career ladder

I've held nearly every job you can hold in IS, and in 20 years I've never worn a pager. Some of this was dumb luck. When I worked as a programmer, for example, none of the applications I supported ran as overnight batch jobs, so that eliminated one source of pageritis.

For the most part, though, I carefully planned my freedom from being on call. When I managed networks and telecommunications, for example, I remained pager-free, even though we ran a mission-critical operation around the clock. How?

Every time the subject came up I asked the same question: "What would I do about it?"

The team always had analysts on call if something went wrong. They wore pagers. I slept until the next morning.

"What if they need you for something?" one of my colleagues once asked.

"Like what?" I asked in return. "They know what needs to be done, they'll make the right decisions, and if anyone questions their authority they can explain that they had no choice -- they couldn't reach me because I don't wear a pager."

Had I worn a pager I'd have had to justify it, and that would have meant insisting on being beeped every time someone needed a decision. And that, in turn, would have drained the authority right out of my team.

Even worse, I would have lost a lot of perfectly good sleep.

A lot of first-time supervisors treat their newfound authority to make decisions the way a child treats a new dispenser. It isn't the decisions (candy) that matter. It's the process of delivering them that's fun.

Either these supervisors learn the key lesson of career advancement, or they're perceived to be front-line supervisors for the rest of their lives. That is the oldest lesson of succession planning: always be important, but never be essential.

One regular theme of this column is that managing people, getting the job done, and succeeding in your career are independent goals you have to actively align, not naturally converging activities. Here's a case where you can line 'em up pretty easily.

To manage people well you have to delegate well, giving decisions to the people who report to you. Otherwise they can't grow.

Getting the job done? You can't do it all yourself no matter how hard you try. The fewer decisions you make yourself, the more effective you are as a manager.

And then there's your career. To be promoted, you need to pass the following tests: (1) You should at least resemble being qualified for the position you want; (2) You must have created the appearance of having been effective in your last job; and (3) You must be easy to replace.

This is neither original nor profound, but it is hard to accept. That's because being hard to replace is a key survival strategy for many employees. It's a good one if your goal is job security. If that is your goal, you should avoid sharing any information that helps someone else do your job in your absence.

If, on the other hand, your goal is advancement, then you have to treat succession planning as a personal mission.

Delegating decisions makes you upwardly mobile. Your department can function effectively without you, and it probably includes several qualified replacements for you, too.

Here's the irony: some managers get the silly idea that it's how they ran things that got them promoted.

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