The Advancement Myth: Rethink Leadership Strategies to Empower Growth

How often have you heard a phrase like, “Helpdesk is a great stepping stone in IT at our organization?” If […]

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How often have you heard a phrase like, “Helpdesk is a great stepping stone in IT at our organization?” If you’re like a lot of organizations, this is either an accepted truth or a known hyperbole. Regardless of the veracity of this statement, on an emotional level it presents a false dichotomy: helpdesk is temporary with limited expected skillsets, and you’ll eventually need to move on or out. What kind of message does this send? What kind of work would you expect from someone if they accepted that their work was inherently less valuable, and advancement was, at least insomuch as we can control the future, a myth? Constrained by factors often beyond their control (headcount, budget, technical assets), leaders must find appropriate ways to tackle these concerns. Failure to do so will result in disillusionment at best, and a septic environment with low self esteem and high turnover at worst. There has to be a better way.

Level Set with Growth vs. Fixed Outcomes

Oftentimes with entry level positions, leaders try to get new hires passionate by giving examples of professional growth opportunities. Consider the following:

“Welcome! While this is an entry level role, but if you stay in it for X number of years then who knows, you may find out you like networking, and then maybe we’ll have an engineering position open at that time.”

Being transparent about “possible” (keyword) advancement opportunities is a good thing. But as well intentioned as this may sound, it presents at least two problems:

  • It implies a lower sense of worth: You’re less than “X” position, because hopefully one day you can advance to “X” position
  • It resigns expectations to a fixed outcome we cannot control: Who’s to say that a networking position will be open in a few years? Is it even realistic to even mention this now?

Whether or not the original statement is true via some utility (I’m hiring you as a lower tech because you’re in fact lower technically than say a network engineer) or professional reality (it’s possible you could advance internally), we as leaders can still do better.

Now let’s look at a different version:

“Welcome! I’m really excited about you taking this role. You’re going to be a big help to our organization. Did you know helpdesk accounts for over 80% of our organization’s impression of IT? That’s you! It’s a huge opportunity to affect change. I’m also excited to see what areas of the business you gravitate towards. I’m sure you’ll work very hard to take advantage of them and am here to help in any way I can.”

The above statement essentially says the same thing as the first. But notice what we changed: we convey excitement (always a good thing when talking about motivation), provide an example of one’s immediate value to the company (“80%…”), and, perhaps most importantly, we’re stressing more the importance of growth versus fixed outcomes beyond our control.

Stress the Non-Technical

Still, in order for growth to be effective it must be focused, and usually with Level 1 this means technical growth. In IT, this should be obvious: techs need to know (technically) about the environment they are supporting. While this is important, I would argue that we do ourselves a disservice by over emphasizing that aspect of the job. After a base level of technical aptitude for our environment is achieved, it would behoove us to look at other areas. For one, the majority of entry level troubleshooting is siloed into a high percentage of recurring issues (automation aside), so we have a chance to pause and pivot learnings. More importantly, however, the moment you impart that technical skills are the main pathway upward is the moment you devalue learning other soft skills that are vastly more wide ranging – things like emotional intelligence, communication, listening, and networking (social). You also create more opportunities beyond IT for advancement. Perhaps you hired an entry level IT technician, but found very quickly you had an amazing CRM employee!

Building these soft skills often requires less overhead and fewer internal assets (how many times can you really pull engineers off of projects to do chairsides?) and can be practiced with more repetition. Your techs may only get access to the local sandbox for learning once a month, but they can practice making better eye contact every day. While teaching someone how to route packets may be hard, I’d bet you know a lot more technically competent engineers than you can remember the last time you had a truly engaging experience with customer support. That there is a paucity of skillsets in these areas represents a golden opportunity for us all.

Create the Culture

Some of this thinking may sound a little obvious, because it is. Who didn’t know making unsustainable promises and limiting growth was a bad thing? I would challenge you though that there is a difference between what is obvious and what is foundational. Just because we understand that something should be so, and know of some cool tricks to possibly achieve it, does not mean that we’ve internalized it in our environment. The more we can create a culture where we show value at all levels, while appreciating growth in all forms (technical yes, but also – and especially in some cases – nontechnical), the more we can have high performing and driven teams and the less susceptible we will be to perpetuating the “advancement myth.”

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