Thornton A. May: Sustaining your career during unsettled times

Sustainability, or creating economic prosperity without wreaking ecological havoc, is very much on the minds of executives at big brand companies like Coca-Cola, American Greetings and UPS.

Career sustainability, or lifting your personal brand via consistently delivered, measurable enterprise value while maintaining some semblance of work-life balance, is top of mind for the millions of underappreciated IT professionals today. The world of IT work is in the early stages of fundamental change.

Ongoing research at the IT Leadership Academy is teasing out a framework for understanding right kind of leader for the right kind of technology. Despite the tragically out-of-step musings of certain career coaches, largely cosmetic changes like adjusting the font on your résumé, adding a certification or two, or rephrasing the personal objectives you list in your cover letter will not cut it in the new world of work. This is not a time for tweaking; this is a time for transformation.

IT work requires a massive rethinking. In a series of international workshops, we asked a large and diverse group of senior IT executives three questions: What careers did they dream of when they were children? Could they ever envision IT being the kind of job a child would dream of? And what was the biggest surprise or memory they could recall from the first 90 days in their current jobs?

As expected, no one had dreamed of becoming a CIO as a 10-year-old. And everyone was understandably skeptical about IT professional ever replacing firefighter, cowboy, ballerina, astronaut or athlete as a career aspiration. But what surprised us was that not one of the memories the IT execs could recall from their first 90 days on the job was pleasurable.

Gone are the days when it was enough to be a plumber, a mechanic, a project manager, a digital baby sitter for a tragically technology-illiterate senior management team, or a janitor who cleans up data messes. At the IT Leadership Academy, we have forensically analyzed "what gets people fired" in today's world of IT work.

At the top of the IT food chain, you can do all the traditional things right and still end up in the career chipper. IT leaders prospering in the new world of work exhibit three core traits, which form what we call the new ERP: Educate (self-educate), Reach Out (connect to thought leaders) and Produce (deliver value).

While in Amsterdam, my colleague Martin Mocker shared the results of an MIT Center for Information Systems Research survey about how CIOs spend their time. Only 5% of a CIO's time is spent developing new IT management skills. Your organization isn't going to fund your career development. The fastest and most affordable path to self-education is relating to and reaching out to thought leaders who are moving rapidly down the learning curve of emerging technology sets.

In the evolving world of work, what you did and what you learned isn't the career decision point -- what you can do and what value you can create is where the action is. You need to be perceived as a "value artist." Seth Godin, author of Poke the Box, recounts the story of Marcel Duchamp, who mischievously submitted a urinal to a 1917 art exhibit. Duchamp was an artist. The next person to work with a urinal was a plumber.

The future belongs to IT professionals who are simultaneously data scientists and value artists. The right kind of IT leader is an entrepreneur, an innovator, a data scientist, a change agent, an educator and a diplomat.

Next: Opinion: Own the future by building relationships

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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