IT director shows value of focus and flexibility when heading for the top

If you are aiming to climb the career ladder, it helps to have a clear goal, but you will also need a flexible approach along the way.

If you are aiming to climb the career ladder, it helps to have a clear goal, but you will also need a flexible approach along the way.

Toby Clarke, group IT director at business insurance company Abbey Legal Protection, knew he wanted to be a head of IT almost from his first encounter with an Amstrad PC at work.

Just one problem - he was training to be a financial adviser at the time.

Clarke juggled working as a financial adviser with looking after his employer's IT systems for a few years before opting for IT full time. He quickly realised that starting in support was the quickest route to the top.

"Support to IT management is a fairly direct path. If you are a development specialist, it is very difficult to get into IT management. So it was always support I wanted to do," he said.

"I wasn't particularly keen on becoming a developer or going down the technical routes. Although all those skills are very enjoyable, my aim has always been to manage people and projects."

Clarke got a chance to make an immediate impact despite his lack of experience when he moved to his next job with sports marketing company ISL.

The company grew from 30 to 100 people. Clarke was supporting them single-handedly, but while the job developed his technical and support skills, to meet his goal of becoming an IT director Clarke needed experience of people management. He joined ERP consultancy MAS.

The IT manager in the company acted as a mentor to Clarke, helping him with staff appraisals, discipline, and other people management skills.

The job also gave Clarke valuable exposure to a range of ERP software, including Oracle and SQL Server, and he had to fight against pressure from his managers to become a technical specialist.

"Having a good relationship with your manager is key here," he said. "I was always very focused on what I wanted to do."

Having gained further management experience with another employer enjoying rapid growth during the dotcom boom, Clarke's big career break came when one of his suppliers recommended him to Abbey Legal Protection, which was looking for its first IT director. Clarke got the job, achieving at the age of 29 his ambition to become an IT director.

"Suddenly everything pieced together. It was a natural fit because I understood insurance from my days as a financial adviser," he said.

"One of the key things I have learned is to make sure that all of our projects are business projects with an IT involvement. I have purposefully had to stand back, and that makes the business focus on what it wants, rather than asking IT what it should have."

For people with similar goals, Clarke advises those starting out to put the work in and try to reach their goals while they are young.

"As you get older, it becomes harder, especially if you are married. If you haven't done it and you then try to move up the career ladder, the demands of your career could mean you end up getting divorced. So 'do it now' is the watchword."

Clarke's career tips

  • If you want to be an IT director, think that and believe it, because it is actually achievable. Resist being side-roaded
  • Having a good relationship with your line manager is key
  • Sometimes you need a mentor
  • Put in the work while you are young. As you get older, it becomes harder
  • Understand the business. Make sure projects are business projects with IT involvement
  • Spend time networking with your peers
  • Fortune comes along rarely, so grab it when it is there.


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