Tuesday, April 13, 2010

So you want to be a VP... Part I

A young friend mentioned the other day that there's a pretty clear path to getting an engineering job: you get an engineering degree, you go to the career center and job fairs, you send out your resume, you go for interviews, and in a normal economy you can probably find work. But suppose you're working as an engineer and you want to become vice-president or head honcho of a company: what do you do?

By the way, I'm probably not the best person to ask about this, because I couldn't stand being even a first-level manager when I tried it in the early 1980s; if can't design, build, or debug something, then I won't last very long in a job. One of the few times I took an active role in my career was asking to be anti-promoted from management to individual contributor; being a vice-president or CxO sounds like about as much fun as a root canal without anaesthetic.

That said, I do have some thoughts on the subject, mostly about being a valued employee whatever your role is. And as much as I bad-mouth my management experience, I have to admit that it made me a better engineer, because it provided insights into what managers do and the kinds of challenges they face.

So let's start there: your manager. Unless you have an exceptionally bad one, then your success will be tied to hers (assuming for this post that your boss is female). It's hard to look good if she doesn't, and if your mission at work is to help her succeed, she'll do what she can to help you accomplish that mission. So try to understand your boss's world: what does she worry about? What is her vision for your department? What kind of skills do you need to develop in order to help make that vision into reality? And so on.

Along these lines, I happened onto this article on talentsmart.com, which described "Next-Generation Leaders"; it's definitely worth a read, and includes this summary table:

Next-Generation Leaders Trophy Kids
Create meaningful work for themselves Expect meaningful work to be given to them
Ask, "Is there anything else I can do?" Say, "That's not really my job."
Constantly strive to do their best work Constantly claim "I'm trying my best"
Try to solve problems on their own before asking for help Ask for help at the first sign of an obstacle
Use self-deprecating humor to give everyone a laugh Make sarcastic comments in attempts to be funny
Think about what other people want Frame things in terms of "what I want..."
Have enough self-confidence to learn from other people Talk down to other people
Eye long-term rewards for themselves Expect a constant flow of immediate rewards
Pride themselves on results Pride themselves on trying hard
Earn their success Blame others for failures
Try to create real value Try to earn praise
Adapt their language and appearance to fit the situation Believe that their appearance defines them
Seek out feedback on their performance Get defensive when critiqued
The left-hand column isn't just for future VPs, by the way, and the right-hand column is a good list of warning signs. You might want to look at that from time to time, and see which column honestly is a better description of what you're doing.

I mentioned good managers. If you find a good one, do what you can to stick with her. If you have a bad one, you may take measured steps toward a better one, but burn no bridges! You want to be VP, you'll have to work in an organization, which means you don't control who you work for. It's hard to succeed if your boss goes down in flames. And who knows -- your boss may learn something from you and become a better one! So don't undermine your boss; if you disagree, tell her so, respectfully, but when marching orders are given, you have to obey them until you find another boss. There are plenty of reasonable ones.

I really believe that last sentence, by the way. This may be old-fashioned, but I like to practice the principle of "abundance thinking." Abundance thinkers believe that there's no shortage of blessings, no shortage of success, no shortage of credit to go around. There's no shortage of reasonable managers or reasonable colleagues; there are lots of people around who are or could be excellent. The folks who run Disneyland are abundance thinkers; if you want to start up a theme park somewhere, they will show you how they did things, tell you what worked and didn't, and so on. Why would they do that, if you might be a competitor? Because they believe there are plenty of guests interested in theme parks, and if you try to duplicate what they have today, no worries; by the time you do that, they'll have innovated in other ways.

In contrast, "scarcity thinkers" behave as though life were a zero-sum game: the more credit you get, the less there is for me. Thi is not 100% false, but it's mostly false. The part that's true is that there's only one #1 slot in any rank-ordering of employees, but the part that's false is this: when you help other people, when you catch them doing great work and tell their boss about it, well, I'm saying this is a great habit to get into and absolutely will not hurt your career.

So I routinely tell our young employees to do that: if someone helps you out, send their manager a short email, especially near the time for annual reviews. This is good for everybody: you'll develop a reputation for generosity, your colleague's boss will have a nice piece of written evidence for ranking/evaluating your colleague, and of course your colleague will reap a bump in their manager's esteem.

Another thing I advise our young employees to do is to take notes at meetings. This will help forestall the otherwise-common confusion that follows when nobody records decisions. "What did we decide last time?" and "I thought you were going to do that?" and "When was that supposed to be done anyway?" -- all these can be answered by referring to the notes you took and circulated; if you email them out the same day, with a request for corrections/clarifications, you can help prevent wasting time at the next meeting, and everybody will love you. In Up the Organization, Townsend suggests keeping notes to one page and touts that as a means to becoming a Vice-President.

Which brings me to books: Townsend's book, though not technologically up to date, is still a great read, and an easy one. You should also read Drucker's The Effective Executive. It's worth having your own copy and re-reading it from time to time. And you don't have to be a Director or VP or even a manager to profit from reading it. Know thy time, focus on contribution, etc. -- those are important principles for any "knowledge worker" to follow.

Dave Packard's 11 simple rules is another great list;you can find them here and lots of other places. Here's the summary:

  1. Think first of the other fellow.
  2. Build up the other person's sense of importance.
  3. Respect the other man's personality rights.
  4. Give sincere appreciation.
  5. Eliminate the negative.
  6. Avoid openly trying to reform people.
  7. Try to understand the other person.
  8. Check first impressions.
  9. Take care with the little details.
  10. Develop genuine interest in people.
  11. Keep it up. That's all — just keep it up!
Again, you don't have to be a VP or even a first-level manager to gain something by following these.

Finally, make sure that being a VP is something you really want to do -- that is, you want to do the work, not just to have the title. What do these guys do every day? What do they like about their jobs? What are the challenges and stresses they face? And what is their home life like? Try to get some time with a current VP and ask them.

And why isn't a VP's life for me? Because VPs don't get to do what I do. They don't write code, they don't talk much to new employees, they don't solve interesting technical problems. It just doesn't seem very interesting to me.

1 comment:

Ravi Phulari said...

Great post Collin. Waiting for next part.