Career advice: How to move into a leadership role

Bruce Marcus, the executive vice president and CIO of The McGraw-Hill Companies, answers questions about moving into leadership positions, dealing with a difficult boss and the impact of the economy on IT

Bruce Marcus

Title: CIO, executive vice president

Company: The McGraw-Hill Cos., New York

How can someone who's interested in more of a leadership role stand out from his peers?

The broader perspective is always a good place to start. Technologists tend to have deep knowledge and siloed perspectives. Understand the business objectives, and look at how the technologies you're responsible for are and can be used to further those objectives. This understanding provides a starting point for discussion that tends to differentiate would-be leaders. Looking beyond your technical silo to how all your technologist peers can help achieve those business goals is part of what makes a leader. Showing the way out of endless abstract debates about what's the best technical solution toward a solution that's good enough for the business purpose helps as well. Your customers will likely appreciate the perspective, and your leadership may well recognize your ability to communicate in ways that tie technology goals to business and customer impact.

I was just starting to regain some confidence in the IT industry when the economy started to go south a few months ago. Are we in IT going to get hit hard by this downturn?

Yes, but it's not likely to be as big a hit as the previous downturn. IT organizations are generally more efficient and focused on higher-value skills than previously. And more and more technology is focused on the revenue-generating side of the business than ever before. Businesses seem to be moving cautiously toward adjusting IT staffing in this downturn.

Help! I'm not making any headway in my career. Six years on the help desk, and every feeler I've put out for other jobs in IT has gone nowhere. What should I do?

First, I'd ask, what have you done to differentiate yourself in the help desk position? Being a whiz at your current job won't necessarily get you promoted. What gets management's attention is taking on responsibility above and beyond your job description. For example, the help desk probably gives you a bird's-eye view of where the regular, repeated operational failures occur. What changes have you suggested to the owners of those systems that could help them to avoid those failures and reduce the help desk calls? Seeking direct feedback from your manager or HR representative can also provide insight and help you gain traction.

I've had some run-ins with my boss, who becomes very defensive if anyone suggests other ways of doing things. His attitude seems petty to me, but I'm the one who gets labeled "negative" all the time. What should I do?

I'd take a good look at how you're raising suggestions. With some bosses, being challenged in a room full of other people is usually guaranteed to go nowhere and earn you a negative label. A one-on-one session may help your boss put aside her or his ego and listen. Sometimes, a short written suggestion -- sent only to your boss (same ego issue) may help open the door. Sometimes, when there are competing notions about how to move forward, abstract discussion isn't helpful, and only real-world experience can get to a conclusion. When your idea isn't the winning one, be as energetic about realizing it as you'd be if it were your own. That lends credibility -- "It wasn't Tom's idea, but he worked the hardest to make it happen" -- which is critical to getting suggestions taken seriously.

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