Management skills: Five ways building your network will help you get ahead

Running day-to-day IT operations is just one part of the digital leadership role. Smart tech chiefs boost their engagement skills by broadening their experiences beyond the office.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

If you want to impress the boss, you'll need to engage the executive team and make sure the boardroom buys into your plans for digital-led business transformation.

While the work you complete in your day job is key to building your reputation, digital leaders can also boost their engagement skills by the things they do outside the immediate workplace. Here are five tips to boost your network.

1. Broaden your experiences to bolster your knowledge

Trainline CTO Mark Holt says building experiences is crucial for any IT professional. He tells his staff about the importance of getting out and engaging with the wider tech community, including forwarding a stream of invites to events.

"You hear what people are talking about and you hear what's interesting in the wider industry. It's just about building that network and building that community of other people that you can have a conversation with," he says.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

Holt gives "the nightmare scenario" for any IT leader of a security incident. In this situation, tech chiefs need to be able to be draw on their networks and get on the phone to four or five different people and ask, 'can you help me?'

"Security is a very extreme example but I do think success is about making sure you're drawing on experience from as many different places as possible. At Trainline, we regularly come to the end of the executive meeting and we'll ask someone to reach out to another company who's working in a similar area," he says.

For example, Holt holds a non-executive position at lottery firm Camelot, which has been really helpful in developing his broader experiences. "It's a great way of thinking about your own beliefs," he says.

2. Take on external roles to create a fresh perspective

Hany Choueiri, chief data officer at Aldermore Bank, holds a number of industry roles outside his day job. He says these external roles are essential when it comes to the development of C-suite leadership skills.

"I think the most important thing is to build your network of contacts," he says. "From people in the industry, you learn a lot about the domain you're in. You learn so much from being involved in things externally, particularly when it's with international organisations."

Choueiri is a board director of Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation, the not-for-profit standards specialist. He says there are "huge benefits" from connecting with peers, especially when it comes to creating a fresh perspective back in the boardroom .

"I think it's essential to have external peers that you can talk to or to have involvement with associations or boards," he says. "It means that I talk internally with executive members, I can bring that external expertise back in, and I can quote what somebody else is doing in another organisation or another industry."

3. Get out and meet as many people as possible

Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, says smart digital leaders make sure they carry on learning – even once they get to the very top. Gannon says developing experiences outside the day job has always been important to him, both as full-time CIO and in his stint as a consultant before joining the council.

"There's the basic stuff about just getting out there and understanding your customers and spending time to speak with them. Consulting was interesting because it gave me the opportunity to look outside my own experience and see what other organisations were doing. I think it's really important to be constantly learning," he says.

Gannon suggests his determination to develop new skills might be something to do with having completed a doctorate prior to joining the IT profession. His interest in education continues to this day – Gannon is a school parent governor.

"Being a governor is interesting and getting out and engaging with other networks in the city is something I do a lot. We've developed a cross-community network, called dotSHF, which is about how we bring together the work that's being done by sole traders, and private and public sector organisations around digital," says Gannon.

"I've learned loads from working with private sector companies and going to meetups and things like that. You meet people and you learn so much by getting out there. Don't just sit in the office."

4. Be clear on what you want to achieve through your external activities

Sharm Manwani, executive professor of IT and digital leadership at Henley Business School, has advice for IT leaders thinking of taking on extra-curricular activities: "Just be clear on why you're doing it." He believes there are two key reasons for taking on additional roles.

"Do you want something that's completely the opposite of what you normally do in your day job, so it forces you to think almost laterally and outside the box, or do you see it as a way of sharing and communicating your knowledge through a different audience, and therefore potentially opening up different opportunities?"

Manwani says there are a host of activities that can broaden an executive's skillset. Most of these experiences help because they make leaders think about engagement in a refreshing way. Manwani is a former CIO and believes lecturing is a great way to develop your out-of-work leadership experiences.

"We're always looking for speakers that offer good case studies, particularly in the new digital world," he says. "Whether its schools or universities, going into the classroom and sharing some of your knowledge and experience, and engaging with students, is a great way of learning."

5. Work in different fields to boost your communication skills

Steve Otto, CTO at The R&A, says developing experience outside the day job improves your communication skills. In his role leading technology for golf's governing body, Otto uses big data to manage the sport. He says it's crucial to be able to talk about complicated details in a straightforward manner.

"When you're explaining to a board why they should do something, you do not expect people to be conversant with the sort of deep roots of mathematics when you go into a situation. I think working in many different fields has helped me work on my communication skills," he says.

Before joining The R&A in 2004, Otto worked worked at NASA Langley in the US and as a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Otto still lectures at the institution and is an honorary chair in mathematics. His experiences in the classroom help him back in the workplace.

"You don't want to blind people with the science, but you want to make sure they can understand it. Coming from a lecturing background, the most successful lecturers are those that understand their field best. I think working in different fields has emphasised how creating an understanding of your work is all about communication," he says.

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