Anyone looking to reach the top will need a broad range of skills. You could focus on technical expertise, go deep into one area, or choose to broaden your experiences. Which strategy is likely to pay the biggest dividends? Five experts give us their opinions.
1. Make sure you develop wide business experiences
Brandon Hootman, director of digital data at Caterpillar, says young professionals should not stay confined in one department and should make sure they’re exposed to all the various activities of the organization they work for.
“Deliberate employee development is something to pay attention to,” he says. “Ensure that you’re getting that cross-functional experience from a business standpoint. Being deliberate about setting and managing that track is important.”
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While professionals must be proactive in ensuring they receive this fully rounded exposure, Hootman also advises young talent to look for employers — like his own company — that give people the opportunity to find out how the broader business operates.
“That’s something that we’ve been doing, and we’ve seen some success with that,” he says. “You’re still deep in a technical area, but you get the business breath to be able to understand the work you’re doing in terms of the way the business sees it.”
2. Look for experts who help you stay one step ahead
Bev White, CEO at recruiter Nash Squared, is another expert who says that cross-area training is crucial. She advises younger professionals to always keep one eye on future trends.
“It’s all about creating relevance,” she says. “You need to think, ‘I’ve got the skills for now, but are they the right skills for two or three years’ time? If they’re not, how can I make sure that I either upskill myself and retrain, or do that for my team, depending on which angle I’m looking at?'”
Always thinking one step ahead isn’t necessarily straightforward. New skill requirements and career opportunities can bubble up suddenly and mean that professionals need to take a different route. However, White says young people should find experts — such as external mentors or internal guides — who can help show the right directions.
“There’s plenty of firms that can help you do that, but also you probably have people in your own team who can help you develop programs to do just that,” she says.
3. Focus on your passion rather than an endpoint
Stephen Booth, CIO at Coventry University, says young professionals should be guided by their passions and not by a pre-defined career goal.
“Don’t focus on building a career in a structured sense. Find something you’re passionate about and do that,” he says.
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Booth refers to his own experiences. He went into IT because he really enjoyed programming. As he became more skilled and was exposed to different areas of the technology organization, he started moving into management and began climbing the career ladder.
“And as I got more into it, and started to engage with customers, opportunities came up,” he says. “Just try things. Have a feel for what you enjoy and what you’re passionate about. Because if you’re passionate about it, you’ll be good at it, and then new things will happen.”
Booth might be a CIO now, but he recognizes few people start out with the intention of becoming a senior executive — and neither should they.
“If you go in with a plan to be IT director in 15 years, you might,” he says. “But honestly, enjoy what you do, focus on the enjoyment and the opportunities will come — and you’ll spot them. And if you’re able to listen, you’ll feel those opportunities and you’ll take the right one.”
4. Consider being a big fish in a small pond
Gerardo del Guercio, solutions architect at Prostate Cancer UK (PCUK), recognizes that his organization can’t offer the breadth of opportunities on offer at a big enterprise. However, he says PCUK can offer new talent a different trump card — and he advises young professionals to think very carefully about who they work for at the start of their careers.
“As a charity, it’s very hard because we compete against big blue-chip companies,” he says. “But one of the things we give our students is the opportunity to be a big fish in a small tank. We give them experience across the whole spectrum of IT, whether that’s understanding the mechanics of what happens to data or how it is moved securely.”
This opportunity to get your hands dirty at the start of a career leads del Guercio to advise up-and-coming talent to look for an employer that provides a chance to gain responsibilities quickly, rather than just focusing on day-to-day responsibilities, such as coding.
“You might be working in a big company, and it’ll look good on your CV, but you won’t have responsibility,” he says. “If you wake up in the morning and your software from the day before hasn’t worked, there’s a consequence in a charity. You’re part of a small, tight team. But everyone will support you because you’re a vital part of the team.”
5. Don’t be scared to show a bit of vulnerability
Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund, says the key to success is having the right values. While technical chops are important, he wants young professionals to demonstrate integrity and honesty.
“It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it,” he says. “We can teach technical skills, but I’m looking for people who are respectful, committed, and have a great work ethic. I don’t need somebody who’s only going to try and sell me what they’ve already done. I want someone who just wants to keep learning.”
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While young professionals can take multiple routes into work, whether it’s straight into a full-time role, fulfilling an apprenticeship or entering a business after higher education, Liste says the key to long-term success isn’t a catalogue of past achievements but a proactive attitude.
“People have to be authentic, so that they can learn and grow,” he says. “It’s about knowing that it’s fine to show a little bit of vulnerability. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ That’s fine because you can work with someone who does.”