There’s a tired myth that techies are not suited to management jobs because they’re poor communicators who prefer to work alone in cubicles solving technical problems. But this thinking is becoming a thing of the past as more and more techies successfully climb the ladder to senior-level management jobs.
Techies often thrive in management positions because they’re starting off with valuable technical knowledge most managers don’t have. Erik Gordon, director of MBA programs and the Center for Technology and Science Commercialization Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, points out another trait that equips techies for management: “[Technical people] make excellent marketers because they understand what they’re selling.”
But whether or not you may feel qualified for and interested in vying for that CEO post, your chances of success really depend on your company’s outlook on technical employees’ management capacity.
But which is the best route to the posh office? How do you prepare for executive jobs? What qualities will get you there? I’ll discuss how to read your company’s management philosophy and what you can do to prepare for a senior management position.
Which way to the top?
Many companies encourage technical people to move into big jobs by promoting from their own ranks. Giants like GE, IBM, and Microsoft have been doing it for years. It’s logical when you think about it because these are proven employees who understand the culture, and management knows them well. But there really is no standard route to an executive position. All companies have different philosophies about the ideal track leading to executive jobs. “It involves more than having the right skills; it also requires that you start out knowing what your chances are,” stresses Nick Voigt, director of the iXL Center for E-Commerce at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Before joining academia, Voigt was a 28-year veteran at Hewlett-Packard (HP). “But not all companies are inclined to move technical people into executive jobs,” he says.
Voigt is a perfect example of a technical person who moved through more than a dozen jobs to reach his last position as HP’s general manager of software support for the Americas.
Microsoft typically promotes its techies directly into management jobs. And so does HP, most likely due to its strong technical culture, according to Voigt. “A technical person has a better shot at an executive job than someone from marketing,” he adds. IBM, however, seems to prefer promoting marketing people into management jobs. Some companies may want their candidates to spend a couple of years in marketing, finance, or sales, for example, to give them a more well-rounded perspective before promoting them to executive slots.
Develop a broad perspective
The more time you invest in preparing for an executive job, the better your chances. Take courses, attend seminars, and even go back to school to get an MBA. “Read outside your expertise,” advises Jim O’Rourke, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame‘s Mendoza College of Business in Notre Dame, IN. O’Rourke is also a consultant to Fortune 500 companies. He advises techies to read about finance, capital markets, economics, or marketing to gain a broader perspective.
“Surround yourself with people who know about the things you don’t know,” O’Rourke adds. “And study people who succeeded. Ask how they did it. Also, look at people who failed to learn about which mistakes to avoid.”
Ali Kutay, president of AltoWeb, an e-business platform provider in San Francisco, points out the importance of being introspective. “Management by definition is dealing with people,” he says. “You have to assess yourself through the eyes of other people, such as peers or other managers. Do people respond to you in a positive way? Acceptance is a critical component of being a great executive.”
O’Rourke believes that an essential quality of a great executive is “seeing pathways others don’t see. Envision the outcome. It’s a skill a good executive will constantly hone.”
Kutay adds that executives must “understand the solution aspect of technology. Figure out what [business] problems it solves.”
The well-informed executive
Staying abreast of the many variables affecting business today is critical in preparing yourself for the corner office. The following resources can be helpful in honing your perspective toward senior management:
- CEOExpress: Billed as a site “Designed by a busy executive for busy executives,” it organizes news, technology, and other information around a CEO’s perspective.
- Global Business Network’s Book Club: Check out the recommended reading on this site for a long-view, in-depth business perspective. Their current recommendations are for clients only, but you can visit their archives for free.
Describe the ideal executive package
What would be the ideal combination of skills and experiences for a top managerial position in your enterprise? How has your particular background prepared you (or failed to prepare you) for the challenges of your current position? Share your questions and experiences with your TechRepublic peers by posting a comment below.