CXO

Climbing to the top of the corporate technology ladder

Do your technical skills qualify you for an executive role? Before you fire off that resume to a head hunter, you need to consider a number of critical success factors. Here are some practical suggestions for breaking into the VP club.


By Jonathan Lurie and Samuel Lurie, MBA

Many development managers mistakenly assume that the qualities and attributes that best served them as engineers will transfer to the executive leagues. In reality, not much could be further from the truth. If your goal is to ascend the tech ladder, don’t misdirect you energies toward increasing your technical ability. Instead, focus on maneuvering the trenches of senior management. In this article, we'll touch on some of the essential qualities for those who hope to sit with the brass. This isn't an exhaustive list, but these traits are among those needed if you want to have a shot at rising to the top:
  • Be business savvy.
  • Be a good communicator.
  • Be dressed for success.
  • Be effective.
  • Be high profile.
  • Be trustworthy.

Be business savvy
It is not enough to be technologically savvy; you must learn the business of technology. This includes knowing how to set strategic direction and having a firm grasp on industry trends. In practical terms, that means digesting Gartner and Forrester reports, as well as understanding general accounting principles and terminology and being able to participate on matters dealing with costs, budgets, and P&L reports. A good source for enhancing your knowledge over common business issues and the latest management theories is the Harvard Business Review.

Be a good communicator
The phrase “good communication skills” has become clichéd and is a standard canned listing on most résumés. But it's still a skill set worth refining, especially for the stereotypical developer living in an isolated cubicle. These skills include:
  • The ability to explain technical subjects in an understandable fashion.
  • Good public speaking skills.
  • Good writing skills.

The ability to explain technical subjects in an understandable fashion
The technology executive must communicate the accomplishments, challenges, and tribulations of the technology team in a manner that is understandable to people who don't have a technical background. The most common slipup here is assuming that the rest of the senior management team will understand industry jargon. For example, ASP can mean Active Server Pages or Application Service Provider. Which is it?

Don’t assume that your audience understands what you're saying just because nobody asks any questions. Audience members may not speak up because they don't want to appear lost in front of their colleagues. You might also consider using analogies to explain otherwise abstruse concepts. For example, an analogy for a “database connection” might be a “bridge”; the analogy for a port might be a “door.”

Good public speaking skills
We'll dedicate an entire article to public speaking in the future because it is one of the most important skills for any member of the “executive club.” We've all been to meetings where a senior person rambled incoherently or peppered the entire present with “huhs” or “mmms” When was the last time you found inspiration in such a speaker?

Good writing skills
Correct spelling and proper punctuation, even in e-mails, is also important. In e-mails, address recipients by name and include a signature file in case they need to follow up with you.

Be dressed for success
Although how you dress is perhaps the easiest success factor to understand, it is, ironically, the most contested among engineers. I do not assert that the manner of a person's dress plays a role in his or her level of productivity, but simply that an executive position is more public, with greater exposure to customers and vendors. The person who holds this position has an obligation to represent the company in a manner most befitting the tastes of the customer. Customers typically do not complain when you are overdressed, but they may find fault if you are underdressed. You don't need to wear a tux or a power suit, but you should stay clear of traditional engineer gear, including jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps. Business attire, such as ironed shirts and matching leathers (shoes and belt and/or purse), is essential.

Be effective
How many hours of nonproductive time are you currently spending at work? Chances are, the answer is several. Accomplishing objectives requires good planning and good execution. For example, your day should begin by setting a prioritized list of objectives you hope to accomplish. E-mail has become a distraction in today’s workplace; avoid checking your e-mail every five minutes! At the end of the day, evaluate your progress against your prioritized objectives and constantly seek for ways to work smarter, not harder. An excellent book on this subject is Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker, one of the best-known management gurus.

Be high profile
Perhaps one of the most important ways to prepare for an executive role is to heighten your profile. You can achieve this a number of ways, including earning graduate degrees and professional certifications, publishing your work, and speaking at conferences.

Constantly seek to learn—but be discriminating. It's easy to spread yourself too thin. If your goal is to be a vice president of development, you should keep up with your technology skills, but you shouldn’t invest your time in learning the skills you are unlikely to use. For example, learning Java will be of marginal benefit, as opposed to gaining a solid understanding of Web Services and being able to explain the technical implications of the service model for software delivery to your peers.

Always try to leverage your scarce resources by applying Pareto’s 80/20 principle: You can absorb 80 percent of the knowledge with 20 percent of the effort. The last 20 percent of the knowledge requires 80 percent of the effort. And for those who claim to have no time, here’s a suggestion on how to leverage your nonproductive commuting time: Listen to volumes by Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, and Earl Nightingale.

Be trustworthy
It may appear to be stating the obvious, but when the politics heat up, a trustworthy reputation counts. Don’t engage in gossip.

Is an executive role for you?
The senior management track is not for everyone. Take heed of those who have gone before you, and learn from them. Most of all, if you realize that pressed clothes and leather shoes are not your cup of tea, remember Peter Drucker’s advice: Build on your strengths, not your weaknesses.

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