IT Careers: Balancing Patience and Ambition

One of my favorite parts of leadership is working with people who are just getting started in their careers. Most people enter the “real world” with passion that’s almost palpable. It comes from a combination of naiveté, audacity and, most of all, ambition.

Many are coming out of academic environments where they were able to work with cutting-edge technology and examine new and challenging problems. Most can’t wait to bring their ideas to their new employer. 

For most, reality sets in over time, and their passions fade. Many become frustrated as they feel that management is ignoring their ideas. They may find that some of the newest tools they had used in the academic world aren’t deemed robust enough to meet corporate standards. The “real world,” with all its constraints, gradually wears them down. 

Some extraordinary few never lose the fire. Many of those become visionaries or entrepreneurs who inspire and excite those around them. They often turn into the leaders who bring technology from bleeding edge to mainstream. 

What happens to the rest? What becomes of the vast majority of idealists who leave college ready to take on the world? Many simply burn out.  Their passion consumes them like a star consuming itself. They collapse under the weight of their ambition.

But why? What happens to all that passion?

I believe the answer lies in a failure to find balance in life: a failure to balance ambition and patience. The problem is that most of us fail to recognize how powerful ambition is. That passion that fueled our early excitement can also make us impatient, and impatience can blind us to the opportunities and challenges we confront. 

What does it take to be a CIO today? We need to be business leader, technical expert, strategist, general manager and motivational leader, all rolled into one. Our long-term success requires a strong foundation on which to build these capabilities.

Most people start their careers with some basic building materials–gifts and talents, technical skills, interests, education and limited experience. How do we help those we lead transform these building materials into their own strong foundation? How do they develop what they have while acquiring what they lack? We help them get more experience. 

Through trial and error, we learned the lessons that established and solidified our foundations. As we challenge those we lead, they gain experience. They begin to broaden their perspective. An annoying corporate standard can become reasonable when considered in the broader context that experience provides. These lessons take years to acquire, and the experiences become cumulative. 

Unfortunately, too many people don’t have the patience to gain the experience. While it isn’t unusual, impatience can have devastating implications. Failure to learn critical lessons early in our careers will eventually catch up with us. A mistake made as a brand new analyst or developer provides invaluable experience and teaches important lessons. As a CIO, the same mistake can end a career. 

What can we, as IT leaders, do to help our people find balance? How can we feed and nurture their ambition through patient and deliberate development? Here are a few suggestions: 

• Invest time and energy to understand what motivates those we lead. This seems obvious, but one of the most common complaints about managers is our failure to understand the unique needs and ambitions of those we lead. This understanding also gives us the ability to learn the strengths and weakness of those we lead. This in turn enables us to provide the growth opportunities and experiences that will serve them best. Not everyone aspires to the corner office. Some of the most talented people I’ve worked with were perfectly content designing solutions or writing code. Still others couldn’t wait to move into management. What motivates one would frustrate the other.

• Be honest about the opportunities that exist in your organization. My first real job was with a “Baby Bell” less than four years after the breakup of the Bell System. The entire industry was in flux. Promotions were non-existent. I quickly became frustrated, because my ambitions were misaligned with the reality of our corporate culture. This frustration led to a desire to leave. An honest assessment of the opportunities would have given me the ability to make informed career decisions. It would have built trust and kept me engaged. How can candid conversations keep those we lead fully engaged?

• Help people find what motivates and inspires them. Many people entering the workforce are still searching for what motivates and inspires them. As leaders, we have the opportunity to leverage passion and expose enthusiasm. We must create opportunities for our people to learn new skills. Help them find what they like and what they don’t. Reward your best performers by letting them work on something completely unrelated to the core job. This is a relatively safe way to help them gain experience and explore new roles. Whatever you do, make sure your best people are constantly learning and growing.

• Encourage learning by rewarding risk-taking and appreciating the lessons in failure. Every teacher knows that students will learn more from failure than success. The challenge lies in helping them see the lessons rather than focusing on the failure. IT is a risky business. Systems crash, projects disappoint and new technologies don’t live up to their hype. When evaluating failures (and successes, for that matter), consider how your reward system might discourage risk-taking and learning. 

• Create your own legends. Every organization has a wunderkind–the person whose meteoric career becomes the goal for every new hire. Most legends are a combination of fact and fiction. Fact, Sergey Brin and Larry Page dropped out of college, founded Google, and became billionaires. Fiction, dropping out of college is a proven path to career success. For every superstar, countless others failed. As a leader, we can make legends out of those who follow a more traditional path to success. 

• Make mentoring a key part of your leadership development. One of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment is by investing your time and attention. Mentoring exposes mentees to the realities of leadership. It also gives them a forum to voice their ideas on that new technology they were working on last year in school. Mentoring isn’t just good for the mentee; it can be a great way for CIOs to stay connected to emerging trends.

Nothing we can do can diminish the ambition of young people starting their careers, nor would we want to. Personally, I am always looking for ways to rekindle my own passion. Part of the way I do that is by working with students and young professionals. Their passion and ambition can be contagious and energizing.

Our challenge is to help them temper this ambition with a healthy dose of patience. Striking the right balance is the best path to realizing their potential.

Doug Moran is the author of the forthcoming book, If You Will Lead:  Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders, and founder of If You Will Lead, LLC, a leadership development, coaching and strategy consultancy. He was previously a CIO with Capital One and served in a number of roles in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including deputy secretary of health and human resources, COO of the department of social services and telecommunications director.

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