Five Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier in My Career

Five Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier in My Career

Last month I shared items #10 through #6 of the Top 10 things I wish I’d learned earlier in my career. This month I’ll share items #5 through #1. Once again, I hope you can use these insights to accelerate your career, since I believe if I had learned these tidbits earlier, they would have accelerated my career.

5.  Prune Weak Links.

One of the hardest things to do as a manager is to prune weak links from your team. Every time I pruned poor performers, I always wished I had done it sooner. I learned that weak performers drag down the performance of the team, forcing other team members to fix their work or take on additional work that should have been done by the poor performer. In short, they destroy morale, and they cause your team to question your leadership if you do not take action to deal with the poor performer.

In addition, your boss often knows who your poor performers are, and when your boss sees that you are not taking action on poor performers, your boss will know you are not a leader. Your unwillingness to prune poor performers will therefore stunt your career. It is important to step back and look objectively at your team. Ask yourself why would you allow a poor performer to jeopardize your teams’ ability to achieve their performance objectives?

Lastly, we have all heard the phrase that people join a company, and leave a boss. This means you need to act quickly when the poor performer is a member of your management team. They can end up poisoning the entire department.

4.  Team Building.

Over my career I have learned, often painfully, that there are aspects of management I am weak at executing. A weak area for me is designing and scheduling team building events. I have learned the value of these events, which include allowing people to interact in a low pressure/low politics environment, building trust among peers, cultivating collaboration, and sharing knowledge of what challenges other teams are having trying to deliver against their goals.

I have also learned not to host “hokey” events such as catching people when they fall over backwards. “Hokey” team building events don’t build up a team, they just waste time. Instead, I suggest creating team building activities around actual work or strategic challenges, but make them fun with challenges, competition, or recognition. Since I have weak team building skills, I try and compensate by figuring out who on my management team has this skill, and I empower them to design and schedule activities on my behalf.

3.  Presentation and Speaking Skills.

I am often amazed at the poor speaking and presentation skills of people who desire to be in a leadership position. Having poor skills in this area is a career limiting factor. Why? Because a leader’s team wants to hear from their leader, regularly, on everything from strategy and vision, prioritization, team performance, company performance, and many other topics. If a leader cannot speak and present information to their teams in a professional and motivating manner, they likely will not be viewed as a leader.

Once you get to the senior leadership level, you are expected to publicly present and speak on a variety of topics to the Board of Directors, possibly to Wall Street, to Customers, and certainly at various company leadership events. You should therefore prepare yourself for this inevitable requirement of your role, and practice publicly speaking as much as possible early in your career so that you are competent before you end up on the big stage.

Volunteer to speak, ask for feedback, have yourself video-taped and critiqued, or take a speaking class. Closely watch great speakers and borrow mannerisms and styles from them. Remember, the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. Don’t worry about being nervous. If you practice speaking, it’s like any other skill…you will become confident and competent through repetition.

2.  People, People, People.

I have constantly underestimated the amount of time required to effectively manage and grow people and their careers. Early in my career I was naïve and thought managers spent most of their time on strategic items, forecasting, planning and otherwise negotiating to get the resources needed to achieve their goals. Wrong! All those things combined do not add up to the amount of time spent dealing with people—but I have learned that the return on investment for the time you spend with people is one of the best investments you can make.

I believe you should spend 60-70% of your time each week working with your team, with key peers and customers, and with high potential people two levels down in your organization. For example, I have regular one-on-one meetings with all my direct reports, all my peers at the senior leadership level, and with other leaders key to my team’s ability to accomplish our goals.

These meetings are the most valuable meetings I attend. In these meetings I can remove obstacles, understand where my focus should be on issues, discuss joint goals and challenges, provide coaching and advice, listen and understand where help is needed, and ensure we agree on our expectations of what the future holds. I believe keeping everyone focused, motivated, removing obstacles, and ensuring people know they have management’s support enhances the our likelihood of accomplishing objectives.

1.  Finance, Finance, Finance.

Even though I work in the Information Technology profession, the language I needed to speak as I rose through the ranks has nothing to do with technology. The language of finance drives companies and this is the language you need to speak to be viewed as a peer at the executive levels. I always ask other IT professionals “who approves your budget and provides spending approval”? The answer is usually the CFO. So, what language does he/she speak? You know the answer — Finance.

Ok, why would you go and speak to someone who controls your ability to spend money and not be able to speak their language? Remember, senior management looks at IT spending as a portfolio of investment opportunities, all designed to ensure the company can compete in the marketplace. Therefore, successful IT leaders do not talk to other senior management solely about technology. Successful IT leaders talk about how an investment portfolio of technology solutions will impact metrics their business peers worry about every day, namely items such as expenses, revenues, operating margin, capital, depreciation, and assets.

Really successful IT leaders dive deeper to completely understand what financial metrics drive their company, and what are the company’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and how technology investments impact things such as STC (Speed to Contact), DSO (Days Sales Outstanding), NPS (Net Promoter Score), ROIC (Return on Invested Capital), WACC (Weighted Average Cost of Capital), inventory turns, fill rate, or whatever drives your industry.

If you aren’t familiar with both your business’s financial metrics and KPIs you will not be able to frame your IT investments in those terms, and senior management will not view you as a peer.  I am not saying you don’t need to speak the language of IT, because of course you do…your peers expect you to be knowledgeable about IT, since you lead the IT function. Remember, what your peers really want is for you to be able to translate how technology can improve their business and impact the financial metrics and KPIs.


Eric Dirst

Eric Dirst, Senior Vice President and CIO, DeVry Inc.

Eric Dirst is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for DeVry Inc. DeVry Inc. is a publicly-held, global provider of educational services and is the parent organization of Advanced Academics, Apollo College, Becker Professiona... More   View all posts
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Eric Dirst


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