4 Keys to Advance from Director Level to VP Level

I should tell you before I get started, that getting to the Vice President level in your career is not easy. I’m sure most of you already know that. Either you’ve reached that level through hard work and sacrifice or you’re not their yet and the task of getting there seems daunting. The reality is, there just aren’t that many VP roles available. Organizations are shaped like pyramids and the further you go vertically the fewer opportunities there are.

In my previous blog I mentioned, that in my experience, the move from Manager to Director is the hardest jump we have to make it our careers. It demands such a fundamental shift in mindset and skillset, many of us struggle to ever make the leap. The move from Director to Vice President is a close second. Not so much for the mindset shift or functional skills gaps, but for the new levels of strength and toughness it requires. I’ve seen many first time VPs struggle under the weight of it all. To be honest, I was one of those people.

The biggest difference between the VP and Director level is the scope of responsibility and the complexity that comes with it. At the VP level, you typically manage multiple teams with priorities that are often not totally aligned. This dynamic makes everything harder … messier. It becomes less obvious how to make decisions. More often than not, you find yourself choosing between several suboptimal paths – nothing is clean. It feels like you can’t make a decision to favor one thing without hurting another. There are always many different perspectives to consider, instead of just a few. You aren’t just leading a team any more, you’re leading on behalf of the company. The stakes seem higher and your impact - positive and negative - seems so much more poignant.

To be ready for the Vice President level you need all of the skills you needed at the Director level plus a new level of strength, conviction and perspective.

Here are my 4 keys to advance from Director level to Vice President level

1. Find Common Purpose for Disparate Teams

One of the first awakenings I had when I finally reached the Vice President level was how hard it was to get my entire staff aligned to the same mission. You hear that from people and in books but this is where it became real for me. I didn’t have this problem when I managed a single team or a couple of teams that were more naturally aligned. But when I started managing numerous teams with widely varying functions, things got tricky. I remember being frustrated and asking myself:

Why can’t these teams work together?

Why are we doing so many activities that seem so disconnected?

Why is one team celebrating success and others aren’t?

Why do I know our mission and nobody else seems to?

Like most things in my career, I went through a classic cycle – from denial, to frustration, to blame, to self-discovery. Ultimately, what I learned, is that the larger and more diverse your team is, the most important it is to help each person identify and understand their role in a common purpose. When you can help people find personal meaning in the mission of the greater team, good things happen. When that doesn’t exist, people tend to revert back to pursuing their own self-interests, whether or not those interests are aligned with the mission of the team.

My recommendation for would-be Vice Presidents, is to find ways to create a common purpose for a multi-functional team. Something that isn’t tied directly to the team’s functional disciplines themselves. For example, in Marketing, I try to avoid setting goals for the Web Site or for Public Relations or for Social Media. Instead, I try to find a purpose that spans all of these functions – something everyone can find meaning in. Rather than set goals at the functional level e.g. Web site traffic, I might set a goal at the market performance level e.g. Take 2% market share from our top competitor. Then I’ll help each of the functional teams and the individuals on those teams to identify what their role can be in helping us achieve this higher level outcome.

2.  The Courage to Prioritize Ruthlessly

The next thing I discovered in my early tenure at the Vice President level was how easy it is to get buried under the weight of low impact activities. I don’t care what department you’re in - Development, Product Management, Marketing, IT - it’s all the same. There are an unlimited number of activities you could do. There are an unlimited number of incoming requests your team could take on. That’s the nature of corporate life – there are an unlimited number of things you could do.

We all want to be helpful and none of us likes to say no. We worry about what people will think of us if we do. And so for a while, we try to say “yes” to everything. But the challenge we all have to face, at one point or another, is that our capacity will always be outpaced by the demands on our time and resources. And, if you’re like me, you’ll wake up one day wondering how it’s possible your team is working 24-7 and yet it seems like nothing of significance is getting delivered. Sound familiar?

When someone asks me if they’re ready for the VP level, one of the first things I look at is their ability to prioritize ruthlessly. Can you focus a team on the most important things? Can you communicate a vision that is compelling enough so your boss and other leaders will trust you to say “no” to activities in favor of the initiatives you’ve defined as top priority? Can you build relationships that are strong enough to allow you to say “no” or “not yet”?

My recommendation for future Vice Presidents is not necessarily to work on your ability to say “no” – although that is part of it. Rather, my advice is to be more proactive at sharing your mission with others around you so they can get invested in your priorities. When you fail to get others excited about your priorities, they naturally start to project their priorities onto you and your team. The more visible your mission is to the company, the fewer incoming requests and distractions you will have.

3. Remain Objective at All Cost

If you’ve read my book, Stealing the Corner Office, you already know how important objectivity is to me.  In my experience, creating an image of objectivity is one of the most valuable things you can do to advance your career. One very common problem in most organizations is that individuals and teams tend to be overly passionate about their own ideas, their own projects. Do you ever find yourself in meetings with someone who seems unable to even entertain a different perspective? Do you have colleagues who just can’t seem to let go of a project that is clearly a losing proposition? Do you see leaders around you focusing only on the interest of their teams at the expense of what’s best for the company? Are you ever that person?

Many years ago I made a conscious choice to develop a reputation as an objective leader. I try very hard to look at all business situations dispassionately. I pretend I am analyzing a business case. I want to be able to put my heard into a project for a year and be able to pull the plug on it in an instant when it doesn’t make sense anymore. I want my team to be able to work all week on something and take a 180 degree turn because a better option emerges. I want other leaders to know that I will make sacrifices to my team and my budget if it makes sense for the business at large.

Cultivating an image for objectivity pays off. It’s valuable for building relationships. It demonstrates maturity and good judgement … and its surprising scarce amongst executives. My recommendation to future VPs is to work on your ability to make objective decisions even when it might damage you in the short term. It can be tough at times, especially when you have to make a hard call that hurts a team member or dings your record a bit, but it will pay you back in the long run.

4.   Be a Cultural and Ethical Leader

To be successful at the Vice President level and above, you need to be a strong cultural leader. At the Manager and Director levels, you typically take your cultural queues from your department head. But once you reach the VP level, that responsibility rests with you. Your team is typically quite large and diverse. You are responsible for bringing people into the organization and occasionally you have to ask people to leave. You set the cultural tone for your team.

In my experience, your moral compass gets tested at the VP level. The pressure rises. The influence you have on others becomes significant. Your impact on people’s lives gets real. If there are cracks in your core values, they will be exposed under the weight of VP level responsibility. If your integrity isn’t solid, it will show. And worse, it will multiply if you set a poor example for the team you lead.

When I evaluate would-be Vice Presidents I pay particularly close attention to their moral fortitude. I look for evidence they can maintain strong values and ethics in chaotic circumstances. Will they sell out a team member when the heat is on? Do they avoid hard conversations even when they’re necessary? Can they look a person in the eye and give them bad news or hard feedback and do it with compassion?

My recommendation to those of you who have desires on reaching and succeeding at the VP level is to spend more time actively thinking about your core values. Put them to the test. Don’t shy away from the hard conversations and tough decisions even though that often seems so much easier. Keep training yourself to operate with integrity and compassion when its hardest to do that. That’s the sign of a great leader and successful Vice President.

Every level of your career presents new challenges. The approach you took to find success at the Manager level probably won’t work at the Director level. And that approach won’t get you all the way at the VP level. To find success at every level, you need to constantly evolve and develop. I hope these tips are helpful to you as you plan your path to the Vice President level and above.