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How IT Can Stay Relevant

Leaders and staffers alike had better stay focused on helping out, no matter what that looks like.

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I recently gave a talk at the University of Mary Washington Center for Honor, Leadership and Service on the challenges of leadership in a digital age. I discussed my experiences with changing jobs and taking on the scary task of reinventing ailing IT organizations.

My point to the audience: When the task is daunting, not only must you take small steps to build your "courage quotient", but you must also abide by what I call "the helpfulness rule."

One of my turnaround roles required relocation. My eldest son was 10 years old at the time, but canny for his age. On a "good night" phone call during the transition, he asked me: "Dad, what happens if they don't like you?" My heart skipped a beat, and I kept my voice level as I replied: "Son, my father always told me that if your purpose at work is to help out, you will always be OK. People always need help."

[ IT salaries finally are beginning to thaw. Read more: IT Salary Survey 2013: 11 Career Insights. ]

This principle might sound simplistic, but it has always assisted me in cutting through the chaos surrounding the first 100 days at a new job and then getting on with what needs doing from that point on.

Here's the rule in a nutshell: If your main focus at a job is the glory, the money or the career advancement, you'll find yourself in an untenable situation. What you want will not be what your employer wants. But if your focus is to help out, as long as what you're doing is legal and ethical, you will rarely be out of step with what your employer wants and needs.

The helpfulness rule applies to long-seated IT leaders as well as new ones. You might have been brought on board for a variety of nominal reasons: to turn around poor customer service, to institute modern practices, to fix a botched software implementation. But to stay relevant, abiding by the helpfulness rule will help you understand what your next priority is.

This rule also applies to staffers. IT is a helping profession, first, foremost and always.

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I don't know of any IT organization that's 100% confident in the business environment right now. The crazy winds of change have challenged the scope and role of most IT pros. Companies are appointing chief digital officers, leaving IT leaders to ponder a difficult question: Why is our top management not enlisting us in something that clearly smells a lot like business technology? The tough answer: Because they don't perceive IT as capable of rising to whatever the challenge is.

Why? Because they don't perceive the IT organization as being helpful. IT is perceived as having a different agenda.

Helpfulness has two parts. As I've discussed with my staff, the first step is to make sure you're in a position to be helpful by keeping your skills sharp and learning new ones. Step two is all about attitude -- being willing to help and letting other folks know it.

Whether you're just getting your start in IT or entrenched in the business, you will see the reinvention of IT over the next decade. In five or 10 years, IT will look nothing like it looks today. We can't know exactly what it will look like, and that produces stress.

It helps to focus on what is certain. Or, as Harvard Business Review's Rosabeth Kanter writes, "provide certainty of process."

Helpfulness is the most tangible, certain attribute I can think of, perhaps the most valuable one on earth. My prediction: Those who commit themselves to the helpfulness rule will be fine, no matter what the budget looks like, no matter what IT transforms into, and no matter what the very uncertain future holds.

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