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At some point in your career as an engineer—if you haven’t already—you probably will decide whether you’ll stay with engineering or move into management and the executive ranks. It’s a tough call. The geek in us may want to continue to create, design, and solve challenging problems, but the greater pay, perks, and prestige of management are irresistible.
The pros and cons of each path are up to you. But if you do want to move into management, you can take advantage of a few key strategies that have worked for me as well as for my coworkers and competitors. Just remember to be careful what you wish for.
You Really Gotta Wanna
The most important factor in moving up, and this goes for anything you want to do, is that you really must want it. You have to set it up as the number one item on your personal goal list. It then must become the driving force in your life, that so-called burning desire. If you’re not that passionate about the goal, I can guarantee that you won’t achieve it. Think about that before you really spend any time on your efforts to make it to the top. If you do want to give it a shot, focus on it and plan your work to achieve it. Commit and go all out.
Strategy: The Most Likely Methods
There are lots of ways to go about reaching that corner office. You only have to decide which one is best for you. Different approaches work at different times in different companies. You may even come up with an angle on your own once you start focusing on the goal. By all means, use it if your gut tells you to. And keep in mind that the ultimate goal is more important than the way you get there. Usually, just keeping the goal in mind lets your brain work out the details.
1. Work your way up the company ladder. This is the most traditional method in large companies, but it isn’t as desirable as other strategies today. In big companies, inching your way up can take years or even decades. Someone else often has to get fired, die, retire, or otherwise depart to make room for those below. And even then you could get passed over for an outsider, the ultimate slap in the face, which could happen if you aren’t ready and those above you don’t know of your ambitions. You have to target where you want to be and then plan your way up the ladder by gaining new knowledge, broadening your experience, making lateral transfers, and doing whatever else is appropriate.
I’ve never used this approach. It seemed like a long, grinding path I couldn’t see myself taking, at least in the companies I worked for. Maybe I didn’t have the patience, and maybe I thought that investing a great deal of time might not actually pay off. If you’re in a really big, successful, and stable company and you like it and can see one upward path or more, it may still work for you. If your company isn’t stable, remember that in this fast-paced frenetic industry, it could be bought or merged, go bankrupt, undergo a major reorganization, or whatever, and all your plans could go out the door in a flash.
2. Start your own division. Another way to reach a top spot is to create a business or sub-business that ultimately becomes large enough to support its own vice president—easier said than done, of course, but not impossible by a long shot. I started a new product line within a company that became wildly successful and grew so big the company made it a separate department. I ran that new division for a few years and then got promoted to VP as I continued to build the business and make it a major contributing profit center. If you can think of some product or service that your company might support and then turn it into something larger than other product lines, you may find yourself in the executive suite too.
3. Join a spinoff. This is probably just an extension of starting your own division. Your product line could really get big enough to spin off as a separate company. You then may end up as president or at least continuing as a VP in the new subsidiary. Alternately, if you hear about such a new division being spun off but aren’t part of it, it may be your chance to move up by joining it as a new VP or some other position with its ultimate potential.
4. Join a startup. Over the course of your career, you must have heard about a few new ventures outside of your current employer. Maybe you heard a rumor, got a tip from a friend, or gleaned information from a venture capitalist or other involved party. If you hear about something you think you may like and can do, throw your hat in the ring. Ask to be the new CTO or VP of engineering, marketing, manufacturing, or whatever. Most startups are looking for initial talent. You never know what will happen. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
5. Survive a merger. My first VP position came as the result of two companies merging. As you know or can imagine, mergers create lots of executive duplication and overlap. Some executives leave as a pre-arranged part of the merger. Others are forced out or are fired outright. And others see the writing on the wall and voluntarily leave. In some cases, the exodus is so great that it leaves gaping holes in the new structure. I was a middle-level manager and got promoted into one of the newly established slots—not a bad deal if you can get it.
6. Being in the right place at the right time—in other words, dumb good luck, karma, or serendipity. But it happens. Someone suddenly leaves and a restructuring takes place, making one or more new openings available. Most companies want to use existing employees for advancement, but the secret here is to be prepared. Keep your eye on the positions you want and prep yourself for them. If you’re ready and you’ve previously let the powers that be know that you want to move up, then the chances are good. There is nothing like just directly saying, “I want that position.” Sometimes, asking is the fastest and easiest way. Ask and ye shall receive. If you can demonstrate you’re ready, you make management’s choice an easy one. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.
7. Replace a boss, mentor, or friend. This happened to me. An old friend and boss at another company called me one day and said he was retiring. No one at his company was qualified to replace him, so he thought of me. I was honored. I was in a poor job situation at the time, and except for a major move to Florida, it was an attractive offer. I took the job and immediately went from manager to VP. It ultimately led to becoming president of the company, but that’s another story. If you become close to a boss and rise with him or her or develop a relationship with a mentor, this can happen to you. Riding the coattails of others often is a good way to rise fast if they are on the fast track.
8. Find a VP job elsewhere. This is a more direct way to acquiring a VP position. Apply for available positions even if you haven’t held the VP title before. Maybe you’re ready. This is especially true if you’re a non-VP manager at a big company but control a big budget and lots of employees. This kind of big corporate experience is great in smaller companies. It is usually easier to get the VP title in a smaller organization. And once you get that title, it is easier to get it again somewhere else.
9. Try a lateral move. This doesn’t seem like a good idea to most people, as it looks like you’re standing still or moving sideways. But I’ve seen it work more than a few times. The lateral move gives you a broader view of the business and adds some new experiences that can really pay off in the future. For example, two colleagues took new positions outside the country, something I thought I would never do. Both ended up coming back after a few years into VP slots. That international experience really benefits you, today more than ever as everything is global these days anyway. In some cases, the company may ask you to take such a position as a way to groom you for something better. And if nobody asks, volunteer for such jobs as they come up. That’s a positive signal you want to move up.
10. Leave and then come back. It may not sound like a good ploy either, but it sometimes works. I got one of my positions this way. I worked for a company for quite a few years and was continually overlooked for some of the better jobs. I suspect I was too young or at least lacking in experience. Management didn’t see me as one of them. Eventually, I got discouraged and left for a better position at a competitor. I actually did very well and got that additional experience that I needed. When an opening occurred for a VP slot in my previous company, I applied and was welcomed back.
I have also seen this technique work when a friend of mine left to become a consultant. He landed a great project and went on to get other clients. This experience ultimately led to the company asking him back as a VP—one more reason not to burn any bridges. The world is too small, and you never know where you will work or which companies will acquire each other. Always leave on the best terms possible.
Tactics: To Help You Get There
You’ve probably heard most of these tactics before, so they’ll come as no surprise. Many people blow them off as trite and obvious. But if you aren’t a VP yet, maybe you should give them a try. It’s all a big game, and you have to play by the rules (usually) to win.
1. Become a better communicator. Good communication skills, both written and oral, are a common denominator among those who succeed. First, write as much as you can—memos, blogs, white papers, articles, whatever. Second, learn to speak up. This means voicing your opinion at meetings, giving presentations, asking questions at seminars, and so on. Become a talker—someone who says a lot, but with meaning. Talkers get noticed and usually move up.
2. Get greater visibility. This goes along with being a better communicator. Visibility comes from more writing and presenting. Extend that to writing articles for magazines and journals, commenting on editorials, becoming active in a professional society and working your way up the ranks, giving talks or serving on a panel at conferences or local events, making sure you attend all company functions, starting a positive (to the company) blog, and letting people know about it. Plan a PR campaign for yourself.
3. Walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to look and act like a VP so the powers that be will notice. Notice how the VPs at your company dress, for example, and emulate that. If you still have long hair, wear your baseball cap backwards, and have holes in the knees of your jeans, you’re probably not going to impress anybody. Grow up and dress up. That doesn’t mean pinstriped suits and wingtips, unless that’s the dress code at your company. But it does mean emulating management’s style. If you don’t have the familiar black blazer, go buy one and start wearing it.
Personally, I never could get myself to buy a pair of those tasseled Gucci loafers that so many executives and VCs seem to like. They aren’t my style. It’s fine to emulate up them to a point, but try to be yourself too. Also, get a haircut and shave. The hacker guru look doesn’t translate well into management in most companies. You don’t have to go overboard and make your peer group suspicious, but you do have to go a bit more upscale. And, it doesn’t hurt to drive a vehicle like the brass drives.
Also, find out where the brass dines, and try to be seen at their favorite restaurants or watering holes. It sounds hokey, but it works. My wife and I used to go to a restaurant that a big VP in my company and his friends used to frequent. One time, he recognized me and waved. Another time, later, he came by the table, introduced himself to my wife, and told me to stop by his office. I did that the next week and ended up with a truly top-notch project with some interesting travel, new external contacts, and not to mention some good visibility.
4. Get educated. Management is really different from engineering. It’s about directing and motivating others. It’s about working with marketing, product management, strategic planning, budgets, balance sheets, and lots of other financial documents. If you don’t know some of this stuff, you’re going to have to learn it. A good way to learn all this relevant stuff is to go get an MBA—a big commitment, for sure.
Are the managers and VPs in your company MBAs? If so, you may have to go that route if you want a top spot. In any case, you can often get a financial and management background through continuing education courses at local colleges, professional seminars, and even online. Figure out what special knowledge you need. I didn’t have an MBA, so I got my management education through American Management Association courses and seminars—and my company paid for it.
5. Find a mentor. Identify a high-level person, maybe your boss, who can help you advance. Share your goal with him and ask him how to go about it. But do it in such a way so you don’t seem like a threat to his position.
6. Become more politically astute. As much as we all hate them, politics play a part in getting the most desirable jobs. That means becoming more politically aware of the players and of who is doing what to whom. For example, you need to identify your competition for the VP slot you want. How can you win them over? Develop connections at the top and in other departments, and make yourself known to the boss’s assistants. Upper-level secretaries are more influential than you think. Befriend them. And never, ever underestimate them.
7. Go where the jobs are. I know people who turned down VP and other good jobs because they would have had to move. But this is a mistake if you really want the title. Practically every VP job I got meant I had to relocate. Moving is a huge hassle. I hate it. But I’ve always enjoyed the new environment. It was always new, different, and challenging while broadening my experience. I was lucky my wife supported me in my career and was willing to move. On the other hand, it was difficult for some of my kids. I would be more sensitive to it today, for sure. But if you’re hell-bent on becoming a VP, you have to follow the job.
8. Learn to play golf. I’m not kidding. Upper management seems to love this game. It’s almost a universal pasttime for the upper echelon. Lots of politicking and business get done on the golf course, and it’s always helpful to be part of it. It takes a huge amount of time to play, and it’s expensive, but it’s worth the investment. If I regret one thing about my own career, it’s that I never did play. I did well anyway, but I still wonder how much better I could have done if I would have played a round or two.
9. Innovate and create. The secret to success in technology is innovation. Creative, desirable products are big-time winners. Innovation also applies to any endeavor, like marketing, problem solving, and management. Companies are always on the lookout for people who can continuously come up with fresh and exciting ideas. With technology changing as fast as it is and competition growing all around you, innovation is the best defense and offense. In most companies, the greatest percentage of income comes from the newest products. If you aren’t creating a continuous string of creative new products or services, you’re done. Creativity alone will get you further than even the greatest management skills.
10. Become a problem solver. If you’re trying to get upper-level recognition, solve the tough problems. In every company, there are always hard problems to solve. Most people avoid them when they can. So take a look around and identify some ugly problems around your office. If the problem is big enough, and you come up with a clever solution, you will get recognized. Keep solving big problems, and you’ll find yourself on your way to the top.
11. Remember the 80/20 rule. You’ve heard Parado’s Law before—20% of your efforts will yield 80% of your results—and you know it’s true. The problem is that most people forget it and spend more time on less important projects than they should. Use this to principle to clearly plan what is important and what isn’t. Spend time on those tasks that will lead to your goal and less and other stuff. Figure out what your priorities are, and the result will be a positive 80/20 outcome.
12. Become more profit-oriented. In engineering, we often forget that the goal of the company really is making money for the stockholders. We get bogged down in technical problems and other nitty-gritty details that take our mind off the ultimate objective. Try to get refocused so everything you do leads to more profit. As a VP, saving and making money will be your main job.
13. Think big. During a meeting in a company where I was a product line manager, the president said, “Quit bringing me proposals for small products.” At the time, “small” meant something that might generate a few hundred thousand dollars a year. He further said that he wouldn’t entertain any new product ideas for anything less than $1 million a year. Those figures are larger by an order of magnitude or two today, but the principle still applies. Look for the big ideas and payoff. Creating a big product may take longer, but it leads to huge benefits.
14. Take chances. This doesn’t appear to be sound advice, but it is. I don’t mean foolish risks or doing things you haven’t thought through. I’m talking about calculated risks that could leapfrog you to where you want to be. Again, nothing ventured, nothing gained. As most successful people will tell you, sticking your neck out is the only way to make any progress.
So if you’re contemplating something risky, ask yourself what the worst that can happen could be. If you can live with that, give it a shot. If you fail, so what? At least you tried, and you normally learn from failure—or at least you should. Generally, whenever I took big risk, I was greatly rewarded. There was only one time where I didn’t get the result I expected, and I’m still here anyway. Have some courage. Big risks usually mean big rewards.
As for me...
Am I a VP now? No. I suppose I still could be, but I choose not to. I’m happily employed as an editor and writer for Electronic Design. It suits me well, as I like to learn about new products and technologies and write about them. I found that I enjoyed the technical side of the business more than the management and financial sides.
I served as a VP in four companies and became president of one of them. I didn’t enjoy some of those positions simply because of the brutal pressure, politics, and relentless financial issues. However, I did enjoy the pay and perks. They’re hard to beat, especially the corporate jet I could use at one company. That ruins you forever.
But there is something to be said for enjoying what you do and being happy. I’m not saying that you can’t be happy as a VP, because I was very happy in some of my positions. It depends on you more than anything else and your attitude about it. You may find that you thrive as a VP. I hope that’s the case for you. Good luck in your quest.
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