Top 10 things I wish I’d learned earlier in my career

Top 10 things I wish I’d learned earlier in my career

I have been in business since 1984, starting as a part-time computer programmer. As I progressed towards becoming a CIO, I kept track of the key management insights I learned from others in leadership positions with whom I had the privilege to interact. A few years ago I summarized these notes into a top 10 list that I now frequently share with leadership groups at my current company, and periodically in speaking engagements. I realized if I had learned these earlier in my career, it would have accelerated my success. Hopefully you can use these insights to accelerate your career.

10. Knowledge Paradox

I have seen many people hit the “glass ceiling” because of this paradox. The paradox is many people think they have to know everything about a topic in order to be promoted, and they cannot share that information with others so they can be viewed as the “go to person”. The paradox is if you are the most knowledgeable person, you will not be promoted, because promoting you would leave a gaping hole in the organization since you won’t share your knowledge.

Guess what? You just hit the glass ceiling that you created. Instead, if you share knowledge, you will accomplish two things. One is you will be viewed as a team player, and two you will actually free up your own time so you can take on more work or stretch assignments…and these two things are key to eventually getting promoted, regardless of what level you are at in the organization.

9. Up or Out Mentality

I try and remind people there are really three ways to grow your career. One is to build a high performing team working for you so that your team becomes “in demand” and is given more work. To meet this demand, you will have to grow your team, thereby managing a larger team with, eventually, multiple management layers working for you. The second is to exhibit great leadership and delegation skills so that you have enough bandwidth to take on managing another team in addition to your current team.

The last, and most ignored, is that you rotate into a new management position (e.g. moving laterally) to gain new business skills such that when a promotion becomes available, you are the most well rounded leader with the broadest set of experiences, and therefore you have a leg-up on your peer competition who does not have your breadth of knowledge across multiple departments. The point is, you need to look for all three of these kinds of opportunities, and speak up and tell your management where you see the opportunities, and let your boss know you want to grow in that direction. You never know which of these three opportunities will become available, so letting your boss know that you are ready, willing, and capable is key to being considered when they do materialize.

8. Mentors

Finding the right mentor is a great way to accelerate your career. Usually you know who the best leaders are in the various parts of your organization. I spend time watching how these people conduct themselves so that I can “borrow” techniques they employ. Even better is for you to reach out and ask them to be your mentor. If they say yes,  my suggestions for how to maximize your mentorship are:

  1. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with them so you can bounce ideas off your mentor and get their feedback.
  2. Ask to attend some of their leadership meetings so you can see how they conduct themselves and interact with their teams.
  3. Directly ask them what they consider to be the keys to success as a leader.
  4. Lastly, ask them to interact with your boss and give him/her feedback on what leadership topics they are discussing with you, so that your boss can help reinforce whatever feedback your mentor is giving you. They key point of a mentor is that you have to drive the relationship, not them.

7. Be a Decision Maker

Have you ever worked for a boss who cannot make decisions? I believe they are the worst bosses to work for, period. It’s impossible to get anything done when you are afraid of making the wrong decision. So, this means you must be viewed as a decision maker to be considered an effective leader. People often move into leadership positions because they can make the hard decisions.

The best leaders use a tactic of letting their teams make the decisions collaboratively, but if the team is unable to agree, the leader says something akin to: “A decision has to be made, and I’ve listened to all your feedback, but since consensus has not been reached, as the leader it is up to me to make the final decision.” Remember, making decisions does not mean you ignore new facts that prove your original decision wrong.

Good leaders are willing to admit their decision was wrong when presented with new data. Great leaders admit they were wrong publicly to their team, and they explain what data caused them to change their minds. Great leaders also give credit to the team member who escalated or presented the new data, thereby reinforcing open communication.

6. Cultivate Rock Stars

Do you have any “rock stars” on your team?  I believe teams need rock stars to achieve breakthrough performance. In my experience teams that have average, or below average performance, usually have zero rock stars. As a leader you need to be honest with your team assessment, and if you have zero rock stars, you need to figure out how to either groom a high potential team member, or, more likely, hire one to replace a low performer.

People are competitive, and having a rock star on a team will automatically cause many team members to step-up their game to better compete. Remind your non rock-stars that work is often like sports, where if you “play” with higher talent people, you yourself will improve, and conversely if you “play” with lower talent people, your performance will often degrade to their level. Additionally, make sure you coach your rock stars that one of the keys to their future promotion is their ability to elevate the entire team to higher levels of performance.

Next month I’ll cover the final top 5 management insights that I wish I would have learned earlier in my career.


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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