It was Sunday morning and I got up around 6:00 as I do most mornings, and picked up the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition over a cup of coffee. I was moved by a story about middle-aged professionals struggling to find work for 3 years or more, and it got me thinking about how the role of I&O professionals is changing right now, who is at risk, and what skills will offer the best chances of staying employed (and hopefully happy) for years to come. Many of us are approaching or well into our 40s and beyond, and the older we get, the more difficult it can be to find new jobs.

How you are perceived by others matters most
I'm a strong believer that our employability (true for everyone – analysts included) is directly proportional to the perceived value that we provide to the people around us and those in the hierarchy that we are directly accountable to. Customer value that we create is a factor as are formal metrics, but let's face it, peer feedback often matters more than anything else in many organizations, and there is inevitably an invisible org chart in addition to the one drawn by HR. Few of us are lucky enough to work for companies where the measures of performance are clear and include a strong customer-focus component (I work for such a company, but it's not common) – let alone what behaviors and skills will give us the best shot at job security and growth. There are just so many variables.

Perception is a function of your mindset and daily conduct
As an I&O professional, I would argue that your success is as much a function of your mindset and how you conduct yourself as it is your knowledge and ability to execute. How you engage with the  leadership of the organization, how you communicate and what others think of the quality of your character matters as much as your knowledge, if not more so. I know this because I've screwed it up in the past! When I wrote code, my success was driven by how I applied my technical knowledge and problem solving skills. When I took on a product management role, my success was driven more by how I interacted with others in the organization and customers. I didn't get it right on several occasions, to my career detriment at the time.

Stop tearing down the leadership in the organization
In my role, I'm fortunate to meet and learn from hundreds of I&O professionals every year, and the best are obvious when I meet them. Despite unreasonable expectations, high stress and rapidly changing technology and demands, they are upbeat, positive and have a level of curiosity that I can only describe as insatiable. They see their roles as being not only daily problem solvers but also as educators and mentors to leaders in the organization. Instead of saying "management doesn't get it," they say "I work hard to educate leaders in my firm about what we do and why."

Your best chances for keeping your personal stock high:
So what would I advocate you do (in addition to your day job) to stay ahead and give yourself the best chance for a long career with your choice of employment opportunities? Four things:

  • Develop your knowledge of leadership behaviors and skills. Good executive leaders routinely draw upon the knowledge and experience of others they admire. Business books written by people like Jack Welch, Ram Charan, and many others, articles written by contributors to The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and The Harvard Business Review are all great places to read, listen and learn. The more you know about the way executive leaders think, the better your chances of engaging with them productively and building your cred.

  • Be impeccable with your word. Choose the projects and responsibilities you accept carefully, and negotiate away the ones you don't think you can achieve. It's not always an option to choose, of course, but a top cause of project and personal failure is taking on more than you can do with the time and skills you have. Clarify, clarify, clarify – this is critical for managing expectations. When you agree to do something, do it to the highest level of quality you possibly can. Be the one others can count on to do what you say. Every time.

  • Sketch-in a 5 year technology knowledge and skills plan. Leaderships skills aside, others will still subconsciously expect you to be a technical genius. Maintaining this edge is a crucial part of your positioning and brand. Caution: having fantastic knowledge and then using it to be inflexible about a particular technology or approach to something is a lethal combination. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is get educated about what the technology landscape in your area will be five years from now (e.g. workforce computing), and work backwards to prioritize what to learn now.

    For example, we can say with 90%+ probability that the workforce computing technology landscape will be heterogeneous, diverse and virtualized, and that the current security models we have will break down and require a new approach. Your IT organization will become an even larger broker for services provided by third parties. Think: what capabilities will you need to lead, and to help the organization be ready. One option: Read books and research about client virtualization, zero trust security models, and outsourcing best practices, on your own time, and then offer to present what you've learned to your immediate leadership team.

  • Develop your relationships with other leaders and influencers in the business. Do this by reaching out and engaging with them. A random phone call to ask a top performer in the organization about how they perceive IT and what IT can do to deliver greater value is a fantastic way to start. Not only will you build relationships and personal capital with people that are well-known to executive leaders for their performance, you will also be collecting valuable insight that you can later share with your leadership and team while improving the perception of IT overall. With these steps, you're going above and beyond the call of duty in a visible but value-added way. Always a good thing.

Throw your hat in the ring for the hard, risky projects
Taking on hard assignments that no one else wants because there is a high risk of failure, is the best learning you can get. Volunteer for projects that the executive leadership team says are vital to the business and fraught with risk, and leave your ego behind. You will learn more about yourself and what success requires than you ever could from "cake walk" projects. The trick: remaining impeccable with your word and upbeat while you navigate the waters of failure. Do that well, and you'll have people in your network singing your praises should you ever need to look for a job, which by that time will be unlikely.