"Middle management" tends to get a bad rap in the business world, conjuring images of inefficient paper pushers stagnating in their windowless offices. The movie Office Space might come to mind.
But the middle tiers of healthy organizations are crucial, according to engineer-turned-HR recruiter Steven Levy, who likens middle managers to the glue of an organization. "You can't have top and bottom without the middle," Levy said. "It's like having a body with legs, arms and head -- and nothing in the middle to hold it together. It just doesn't make sense."
"Middle" is also a critical time in a career. It's the connective tissue between where you started as an IT greenhorn and where you want to end up. So whether you dream of the CIO seat or will be perfectly happy and successful on a lower rung of the corporate ladder, it's an important time to make smart decisions while avoiding complacency or burnout.
With that in mind, Levy in an interview with InformationWeek shared his ideas and advice for IT pros in the thick of their careers. He noted that most IT roles begin with an operational component: running a network, building an internal system, managing a move to the cloud. As IT pros progress along their career paths -- and especially as they move into middle and upper management roles -- they're increasingly called upon to take on people management and financial and data responsibilities. The last is a relatively new phenomenon, which encompasses the willingness and ability to make data-driven decisions.
"When someone wants to move up and become more of a leader, those are the [skill categories] they have to develop," Levy said. If you're in the midst of your career, it can pay off, monetarily and otherwise, to think about what choices you can make now that will best serve you and your employer(s) the rest of the way -- and how those choices relate to those operational, people, financial and data categories.
Take people, for example. Too many would-be executives forget that they'll likely need to deal with a rapidly growing group of people as they add responsibilities to their job description. Levy suggested, only half-jokingly, that you should begin to gauge your true interest in managing people by looking in the mirror: "You have to deal with people like you [as you move up]," he said.
Although financial and data responsibilities require a certain degree of comfort with numbers, Levy points out that many of the best moves you can make for your career boil down to learning how to converse with other human beings. That doesn't necessarily mean you must have a gift of gab, but you'll need strong communication skills and an ease with having -- or at least a willingness to have -- challenging conversations with bosses, peers and subordinates. Ditto speaking in front of an audience or dealing with a vendor that isn't pulling its weight.
"At some point in your career, you have to be able to talk to people," Levy said. It can be scary; you'll need to find a way to get past that fear. "The alternative is to have control taken away from you," he warned.
Note that communication shouldn't be confused with shouting. You don't have to be the loudest voice in every meeting or a cut-throat profiteer to succeed; you just need to be smart, self-aware and strategic.
"Squeaky wheels get grease, but squeaky wheels aren't terribly effective or efficient," Levy said. "Ultimately, I want someone who's going to be factual and honest. Being honest, straightforward, never judgmental and always being available to explain the reasoning behind things -- those are the people who make really good leaders."
Read on for nine moves midcareer IT pros should consider.