Aspire to Be a Leader? Rule No. 1: Start Young

By William Friel  |  Posted 2002-02-04 Print this article Print

Getting on high-visibility projects early in a career is essential—otherwise, you may be passed over forever.

The best way to advance through the ranks as a technology manager is to constantly look for high-visibility projects. And you need to do that early in your career, not later. It's hard to get the opportunity at a midpoint in your career if you haven't had the experience—senior managers look for people who have been there before.

PDF Download My break came in the late 1960s, when I was a senior project manager at JC Penney. In those days, at Penney and every other department store, there were usually very long lines. One reason for this was that there were no credit-card authorization systems, so the sales clerks were constantly making calls.

It was very annoying. You'd see customers putting things down and walking away. The chairman of Penney's at the time, Mil Batten, was very frustrated by what was happening, especially in the larger Penney stores. He said, "I want this solved and I want it solved now."

I was assigned to the team that was to develop the solution. We put it to work as a pilot project in 1968, and by the end of 1969 had implemented it as a nationwide system. It was a very large operation from Penney's perspective. It was a customer-facing, customer-touching kind of system.

And at age 30, it was exactly what I needed. It gave me the opportunity to see what it was like to work under pressure. And it gave me a chance to demonstrate what I could do, and to make presentations to the board at a young age.

One of the biggest mistakes a young manager can make is not keeping his colleagues and bosses informed, not getting the benefit of their advice and counsel. As long as you communicate, you're probably okay even if you fail—it'll be looked on as a learning experience. So communications are extremely important in managing a career as well as managing projects and programs successfully.

Nowadays, I appreciate good upward communication from another perspective. As CIO, I don't want to get any surprises. It doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to change things if someone comes in and tells me a project they're heading up is going awry. Usually I won't, because the person doing the telling is closer to the action and has a better understanding of what's going on. But at least I get the opportunity to propose changes. I also get the chance to help come up with backup plans and approaches.

To communicate well, you need honesty, good judgment and common sense. Being articulate in the conventional sense is actually less important. And that may sound funny, because if you're in my position, or if you're a project manager, you do get called upon to do a lot of presentations and speeches in front of large groups. But the fact is, someone who understands his or her role, who has thought logically about the processes—and can communicate them well—is much more effective than someone who is super-articulate but is an empty suit and doesn't really understand.

From a communications perspective, the worst thing a manager can do is become emotional in a group setting. I've seen situations where a leader embarrassed somebody in front of the team, and while that can happen to anybody—because of a momentary loss of emotional control—I've also seen it as a style, and it's a horrible style. The right approach is one of coaching and mentoring, and giving a chance to fail, and then coaching again—but not in front of the whole group. That doesn't mean you should never discuss an individual mistake in front of a group. But you have to pick your spots.

My own mistakes, I think, tend to be mistakes of over-enthusiasm—pushing something harder than it should be pushed. This happened more frequently when I was young. But I'll still get in situations where, if I'm really strongly behind a project or a program and one of my colleagues isn't, it can become—well, an animated discussion. Still, I think my colleagues expect that. If I didn't have that enthusiasm, I wouldn't be doing this job anymore. And they wouldn't have me doing it. —Written with Robert Hertzberg

William Friel is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Prudential Financial.


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