Become Partners In Setting Goals

Mary Jo Casey was an IT program director at National City Corp., a financial services firm in Cleveland, when she asked CIO Jim Hughes about a recently posted job opening. What he told her turned out to be the best career advice of her life: She wasn't ready.

"Jim said I often appeared to be tired, stressed-out and overwhelmed in my current position," Casey recalls. "How could he move me up?"

But Hughes also gave her advice on how to get better control of her job and enrolled her in courses in communications and in setting and achieving goals. The combination of candid feedback and targeted training was just what Casey needed.

"It made such a difference in my life," she says. "It opened up a lot of opportunities."

Career development is a complex stew of individual potential, peer and supervisor feedback, training, challenges, mentoring, visibility and coaching, as well as talent and skills. But it takes a leader to stir the pot. Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT for career development have developed various recipes, but all have executives who keep the mix bubbling.

In Casey's case, she says she learned to delegate. She reorganized and restructured her team so it could function without her. Meanwhile, Hughes began to challenge her. He asked her to make executive presentations to increase her visibility among senior management at National City.

"Jim was very aware of how valuable that was to my career," Casey says. He helped her practice and showed her what the senior executives would be looking for. "I was two levels below him, but he mentored me," she says.

When a divisional support manager position opened up last year, Casey got the job, even though she lacked experience in that area. "Jim looks for talent vs. experience," she says. "If someone is good here, he gives them an opportunity there."

Find Creative Approaches

Smaller organizations and nonprofit companies may lack the resources to fund high-powered career-development efforts for their employees, but creativity can fill the gaps.

In 1992, Tim Longsdorf was recruited as a night-shift computer operator at the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) in Minneapolis. He began taking computer courses at a local technical college and was reimbursed by the NMDP.

"I wanted to learn and kept asking for additional stuff to do," Longsdorf says. The day staff initially left him small scripts to work on and later moved him up to C programming, which he was studying in school. Longsdorf would get as far as he could on the tasks at night and then wait for the morning programmers to coach him when they got to work.

When a programming job opened up in 1995, Longsdorf felt he was ready. But the job description said the position required a computer degree, and his degree was in biology. CIO Paul Zyla had been impressed with Longsdorf's determination and commitment to learning. Backed by other managers and programmers, Zyla worked with the human resources department to have the job description rewritten, and Longsdorf got the job.

"I did a lot of work to make it happen," Longsdorf says, "but there were an awful lot of people pushing for me, too." A year later, he was promoted to programmer/analyst, and he's now a senior programmer/analyst. "He's essential to maintaining and developing our main system," Zyla says.

The 61-member IT department at NMDP is only a decade old, and career development for the current staff has been ad hoc but successful. More than half the staff has been promoted over the past two years.

Get Cozy With Local Colleges

Bending the rules of human resources is only one of several creative approaches Zyla has used to get more bang for his career development buck. When he discovered that local colleges didn't offer courses in C for Unix, a skill his staff needs, he became a board member at a nearby technical college, where he helped direct curriculum and later signed on to teach.

The college gets advice on real-world IT needs and a teacher who has hands-on skills. NMDP gets a pool of interns and graduates with the skills it needs, and Zyla gets to know them in class and recruit the most promising.

Zyla also uses the college as the next-best alternative to an extensive in-house training program. Rather than attend expensive seminars and conferences, his employees enroll in his school for training in skills such as Java, Web development and HTML and work toward degrees.

"If a person expresses a desire to get some training and if it's realistic, they get to do it," Zyla says.

Empower the Employee

Regardless of the program, career development depends on the talent, energy and ambition of the IT workers.

"Our philosophy is that, ultimately, employees are responsible for achieving their goals," says Tricia Myers, training manager at Household International Inc., a Prospect Heights, Ill.-based consumer finance company. "We provide tools and resources to help them get there."

Those tools worked for Mike Halstead. He started working at Household in 1994 as an entry-level mainframe programmer. But he was soon taking courses in technology at a community college and was able to land a job in the client/server area.

Halstead was interested in management, so he and his boss set up a career plan. In 1996, he began a master's degree program in information systems at DePaul University in Chicago, for which he was reimbursed. He also took internal development courses on topics such as project leadership and communications. Halstead began to get more responsibilities and visibility, as well as mentoring from senior executives at Household.

In the spring of 1999, Halstead moved laterally into an e-commerce job. He earned his master's degree later that year and in October was promoted to e-commerce manager. Last year, he became assistant vice president for e-commerce.

"I was never pigeonholed," Halstead says. "There are plenty of opportunities. It's just a matter of seeking them."

Al Crook, director of human resources at Household, uses a well-defined process to fuel the careers of the company's 1,650 IT workers. Employee handbooks identify success factors and competencies for various positions along different career paths. The handbooks also help employees and their managers develop career plans and determine what training they need to move up.

Executive-led career seminars called Household Express are designed to jump-start workers who have been on the job for 90 and 120 days. Other tools include required courses for managers in topics such as creating a positive environment, leadership and hiring.

Technologists can choose from more than 150 classroom and online technical training classes. There's also reimbursement for job-related college courses. A formal mentoring program is now pairing 26 high-potential IT employees with senior managers to accelerate their development while enhancing the diversity of Household's management team.

With more than 20% of IT employees promoted each year, the career development stew at Household is bubbling nicely.

How to Grow Staff Careers
Train managers in the fundamentals—from communications to budgeting to coaching and mentoring.
Create individual development programs to build skills and leverage strengths.
Tie managers’ performance reviews to their staffs’ promotion rates.
Team up with local colleges to help train staffers and recruit top graduates.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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