C-suite career advice: Howard Dickel, Step5 Group

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? "Technology is now an integral part of any organisation and the ability to provide the link between IT and business is a critical skill."

ame: Howard Dickel

Company: Step5 Group

Job Title: CEO

Location: Manchester, UK

Howard Dickel's 30-year career has spanned FTSE 100 businesses and tech start-ups across a broad range of sectors - from finance and utilities, to retail and telecommunications. He started his professional life working as a graduate for IBM, before moving on to an Internet start-up in the late 90's which he sold in 2000. He later joined BT Global Services where he held a variety of roles, which included leading the end-to-end delivery of the London 2012 Olympic Delivery programme with a 1,000-strong team and a budget of some £140 million. Dickel has an MSc in Programme & Project Management from Cranfield University and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Association of Project Management in 2013 in recognition of his work on London 2012.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? "Get off the dancefloor" - Basically, take a couple of steps back from the immediate issue or challenge in order to see the bigger picture and understand the context.  Very simple but very powerful.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Early in my career, I was keen to take up a new opportunity within the same organisation. My manager at the time convinced me to stay with the offer of a promotion. Fast forward 6 months, I left anyway because emotionally I had already decided to move on. All the extra 6 months did was create frustration for me and my manager. I should have followed my instincts.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Find a few mentors who you can turn to for advice and guidance; these should be both inside and outside your current organisation.  Also, seek out roles in businesses that can provide a wide range of opportunities early in your career.

Did you always want to work in IT? No - initially, my ambition was to join a global marketing agency. I only got into IT because my business degree involved a year's work experience and IBM were the first people to come and pitch at my university. I liked what I heard and secured my 1-year placement, later joining as a graduate.

What was your first job in IT? I joined IBM as a Systems Engineer (Technical Pre-Sales) in the Banking Sector providing advice and guidance on the new PS/2 and AS/400 systems

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? That it's all about technology and is full of socially challenged nerds! In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. IT is all about enabling and enhancing the business strategy - which runs to the core of what any business is about. Knowledge of IT is a key skill, but so too is a broad understanding of business concepts.  As for the people in IT, they are some of the smartest, funniest, most creative individuals I have ever worked with in my career. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? My five top tips would be to:

Ensure that you have an outline career plan on a rolling 3 - 5 year horizon so that as opportunities come up, you understand how they might fit into your longer-term plans.

Never stop learning - I read a lot (from Harvard Business Review and The Economist to various business books) - so it's not just about formal qualifications.

Seek leadership opportunities as early as possible, such as by leading a small team or project. This will raise your visibility and provide you with invaluable experience.

Network all the time - stakeholder management, inside and outside your organisation - is a critical C-Level skill.

And finally, find a coach - it is important to have someone independent who you can to turn to about the really challenging stuff.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My career has been characterised by stints in large FTSE 100 organisations complemented by stints founding and running small, entrepreneurial startups. The model for Step5 was something I had drafted back in 2009. My focus now is to grow a sustainable business with a fantastic reputation for delivering results. Developing apprentices and graduates will be a critical part of our growth and is something I'm really looking forward to so that I can share my experiences with the next generation of IT professionals.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Given the current growth of Step5 and our plans for the next 3 years, I would say that at the moment my answer would have to be ‘no'. I make sure I create down-time at weekends - and that as a family we reconnect. My experience over the last 30 years has shown me that work life balance is about expectation management - both with yourself and with the people who matter to you. If people realise you're busy but know that you will honour your commitments then life will feel more balanced, even in the very busy times. If you continually miss commitments then, in my experience, you will struggle to find a balance.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? If I look at where I am now, the skills and experience I need to run Step5, and the route my career path has taken, then I honestly wouldn't change anything. I have always taken risks and made career changes at times when it may have looked risky, but it has always been part of my longer-term plan.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both are very important but if you aspire to a C-suite role then I would say computer science over coding as it gives you the wider context you'll need.

How important are specific certifications? I'm not a big fan of certifications as I think they have been abused in our industry over the past 20 years. In Programme Management, it is entirely possible to collect a large number of certifications over a short period of time which suggest a person has a certain level of experience which they simply couldn't have acquired so quickly. I think there should be mandatory experience periods before you can progress through the key certifications to ensure that the level you achieve is truly representative of both your skills and real-world experience.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Leadership - can they demonstrate that they have really led teams and can share their leadership style and approach with me?

Communication - do they have the ability to listen to my questions and clearly and succinctly shape an insightful response?

Reflection - what did they learn from a particular success or challenge and how might they apply it to my business?

What would put you off a candidate? Not listening to questions. Also, not being able to explain what they've learned from key parts of their career to date, and claiming they have led a specific business or project which, a few questions in, it becomes patently clear they haven't.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not researching my organisation before they come to an interview and not listening to, or reflecting on, the questions asked. I can read what you've done from your CV, but at interview what I really want to understand is what you have learned, how you could apply that experience to my organisation, and whether you will fit my company culture?

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? I think it depends on your ambition. The IT sector is so broad and evolves at such a pace that it's possible to pursue a technical or business focused route for your entire career. However, if your aspiration is to reach the C-suite, then business skills are crucial. Technology is now an integral part of any organisation and the ability to provide the link between IT and business is a critical skill. Business knowledge is essential to ensure that IT is aligned with the business objectives and remains relevant.