Climbing the Leadership Ladder: Essential Skills for Success
While every organization is different, some common skills define leadership roles. The service and support industry folds into even more unique, constantly evolving competencies. Let's examine some skills necessary to climb the leadership ladder, specific to leading people.
I frequently hear, "How can I move up the ladder?" or "What do I need to do to become a manager?" While every organization is different, some common skills define leadership roles. The service and support industry folds into even more unique, constantly evolving competencies. Let's examine some skills necessary to climb the leadership ladder, specific to leading people. (To be clear, "leadership" isn't confined to people managers, but that's a topic for another day.)
There can be a lot of variation in how a business structures its leadership hierarchy. The titles and skills may sometimes overlap; for example, a 'senior manager' role may be equivalent to a director elsewhere. For this discussion, I'm breaking the leadership roles into:
- Team Lead
- Vice President
- C-Level (CIO, COO, etc.)
Team Lead: Building the Foundation
A team lead is typically the first rung on the journey up the leadership ladder. Until now, you've probably been an analyst or other individual contributor. Your manager has noticed that you're willing and able to help and support your team members, so you've been promoted to team lead. At this level, it's all about collaboration and teamwork. Technical expertise is important, and the ability to effectively communicate complex ideas to the rest of the team is crucial. Coaching and mentoring are often part of the job, helping the team build their skills and fostering a high-performance environment. At this level, a team lead most likely doesn't have direct reports but does provide vital input to leadership on how individuals on the team are performing.
Supervisor: Creating Service Excellence
At the next rung in the ladder is supervisor, generally the first role with direct people management responsibilities. You will need to learn how to manage performance effectively, set clear expectations, provide constructive feedback, and help the team member address any gaps in their performance. This is also where you'll need to start developing a thick skin, as dealing with conflicts and challenges becomes part of the job, or you may be responsible for responding to customer escalations. Time management skills also begin to come into play because the service and support teams deal with time-sensitive service level agreements. Finally, delegation is a critical skill necessary to continue up the ladder – learning to let go and rely upon others to complete important tasks.
Manager: Aligning IT with Business Objectives
The manager level is where your abilities will start to branch out, not just focusing on your team but thinking strategically and guiding the team to align with the overall organization's goals. The delegation skills you started building as a supervisor really come to the forefront because your focus has to be split into managing the daily routine and understanding the bigger picture. Financial and human resources knowledge becomes important as you may be managing resources such as staffing plans and the team's budget. You must be very comfortable with change, guiding your team through organizational and technological transitions. You will need to develop your skills in creating and maintaining relationships with stakeholders within the business to ensure your team's goals align with business needs.
Director: Shaping the Future
As a director in the service and support arena, you will play an important role in how technology will shape the future of the business. You must be up-to-date and familiar with incoming technology trends and develop critical thinking skills to understand how future technology could be applied to your business. In addition to understanding technology, Directors will need to have a strong business sense and the ability to make data-driven decisions. Today's security-conscious world requires a good understanding of risk management, the importance of securing data, and using that knowledge to evaluate the risks associated with implementing new technologies. You may get the occasional top-down escalation of customer issues, but generally, the day-to-day operations are handled by your team managers and supervisors.
Vice President: Driving Innovation and Integration
At the VP level, you must develop skills to drive innovation and understand how to integrate technology products and services into business operations. It requires exceptional skills in influencing and negotiation, as you'll be working with senior managers across many different business areas. A VP must have a strong understanding of metrics and reporting, using key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive project success and continuous improvement initiatives. Often, at this level of senior leadership, the overall company culture is determined, as they set the tone of communication and collaboration and are in the critical role of identifying and mentoring emerging IT leaders within the organization.
C-Level: Leading the Way
At this highest level of IT leadership, strategic thinking is vital. These roles make important decisions that drive the organization forward. The C-level may only make a handful of decisions every year. Still, those decisions impact the entire business, potentially hundreds or thousands of employees, customer relationships, and the organization's well-being. There must be a balance between advancing technology and business initiatives. This level also has an expanded role outside the business, with close relationships with technology vendors, other industry leaders, and strategic partners. C-level executives must have a strong ethical sense to ensure that whatever initiatives they adopt alight with ethical and social standards.
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Many skills cross over between these roles; the need for effective communication, strategic thinking, collaboration, and the ability to lead intensifies as you move up the ladder. A best practice is to consider leaders you've had throughout your career, identify what qualities you most appreciate, and use them as a role model for how you would like to lead. There's a big difference between someone who is simply a manager and a person who is a true leader. A leader inspires, motivates, and drives others to realize their full potential. They set a shared vision, adapt to setbacks, and act as a guide towards long-term success.
Not everyone is suited for every role. Some are content with being a manager; others have the drive and ambition to continue climbing. Regardless of which level you wish to attain, embracing a journey of growth and learning will aid you in scaling the leadership ladder and making a lasting impact.