“What does it take to get to the Director level?”
“I’ve been a manager for 8 years, when will I be ready to be a Director?”
“I want to be a Director; how do I get there?"
I get these questions all the time. From my coaching clients and from my team members. The Director level, in most organizations, is where career progression really gets tough. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, the most significant of which is that relatively speaking, there just so few Director positions available. Within most professions the progression from specialist to associate manager to manager to senior manager is very attainable with a solid effort and some time. But something changes at the Director level. This is where so many careers stall out.
The jump from Manager to Director seemed unattainable to me for a number of years and it wasn’t until quite recently that I understood why it eluded me for so long. Today I’m going to share the lessons I learned on that journey in hopes that they can help you. For those of you who are hoping to one day attain the Director level in your career, my hope is that I can help you focus on the most important things to achieve it. For those of you who are already there or who are managing large teams of Managers and Directors, my hope is we can start a dialogue on what qualities you look for in Director level staff.
Before I go too much further I should note that not all companies think of the Director level in the same way. For simplicity I’m using the most common organizational hierarchy I know of – and the one I’m personally most familiar with. Specialist > Manager > Director > Vice President. If this doesn’t sound like the one you know, there should still be some core themes you can apply to your own company or scenario.
What is common in just about every career is that making the jump from Manager to Director is really hard. In my experience it demands the biggest fundamental shift in skillset of any of the career levels.
Here are four attributes you must have to advance from Manager level to Director level.
I vividly recall the day I realized I had no idea what I was doing as a Manager and why I was having no luck successfully making the next jump in my career. My guess is that many of you, like me, woke up one day and realized that most of the things required to be a great individual contributor were the exact opposite of the things you need to be successful at the Director level. You can kind of get away with it for a while at the Manager level but it gets exposed at the Director level when you start having to operate cross functionally and manage a larger team with a broader set of responsibilities.
I distinctly remember the moment when I realized my approach to management was no longer effective and would never lead to success at the Director level and above. Here’s what I realized about my flawed approach:
I was overly focused on myself and my team and not focused enough on the goals of the company
I was good at telling people what to do but not good at teaching people how to become great
I had architected a team structure that made me a bottle neck instead of a facilitator
I was good at enforcing existing practices but not good at establishing new standards for excellence
I was good at developing better individual contributors but not good at developing future managers
I realized the skills and approaches that had served me so well on my way up from Junior Associate Manager (Yes, that was my actual title) just weren’t going to make me effective at the next level. And so I set out to change my perspective. I watched the best Directors and Executives I knew and tried to figure out what made them great. Ultimately I landed on 4 key attributes I have tried to develop in myself and that I use now as the benchmark for what I look for in Director level staff on the teams I lead.
Here are my 4 keys to successfully move from the Manager level to the Director level.
Excel at Developing Other Managers
The most important characteristic I look for in high potential Directors is a talent for developing Managers. This is arguably the most important thing a Director does for a company. It’s how the company secures its own future success. Without a strong and consistent pipeline of Managers, a company will ultimately fizzle out.
Unlike at the Manager level, where you can primarily focus on developing a relatively narrow set of competencies within individual contributors, Directors must coach and mentor individuals to become great managers. This requires a fundamentally different approach. Many of the attributes that make a strong individual contributor are precisely the opposite of what makes a strong manager. Which is not to say that strong contributors can’t become strong managers, but rather that a mindset shift needs to take place.
In my experience you can achieve some measure of success at the Manager level by just directing your team members to behave as you did when you were a top performing contributor. There is some value to be gained from this and you will likely see incremental improvement for a while. But this approach starts to fail at the Director level. At this level you really need to excel at teaching the unique qualities of required to be a great Manager and be committed to doing it. The challenge many of us face, is that we don’t assign a high enough priority to these activities and rather focus on what we’re comfortable with.
My recommendation for Managers who want to be Directors one day is to start making the mental shift now. Start mastering the art of management to balance out the professional and functional expertise that have led to success you’ve had thus far in your career.
Establish Yourself as a Cross Functional Leader
At the Contributor and Manager level, your world is relatively small. Your projects tend not to extend much past your individual team or department. Your contribution to corporate initiatives tends to be quite isolated on a relative scale. And so you can get away without mastering the art of cross functional leadership … for a while.
A Director, on the other hand, must frequently lead projects that span many groups and departments. A Director must be able to lead people and teams they don’t directly manage themselves. This requires an entirely new set of leadership and influence skills.
Many managers, who are comfortable directing staff members in a relatively controlled environment, become exposed as they are forced into complex, multi departmental management scenarios where they don’t have legitimate power over the individuals and groups they need to lead. It’s one thing to be able to make people who report to you do something. It’s a much different thing to be able to influence people, over whom you have no direct power, execute against your vision or direction.
My recommendation for would-be Directors is to get involved in more cross functional committees and projects now so you can begin learning what it takes to be successful in this type of environment. Just being a part of these types of projects will give you a good sense for what works and what doesn’t. That way, when it’s time for you to move up to the Director level, you’ll already be well versed in cross-functional leadership.
Set New Standards for Excellence
Managers, for the most part, are expected to lead a team to execute reliably against an established process, and to meet or exceed existing performance benchmarks. There is a degree of comfort that comes with this, especially for those of us who were once individual contributors who excelled in the very same process and are now leading a team to do the same. You can have success as a Manager, for a while at least, by optimizing a team’s performance against the current benchmark.
A Director however, in my opinion, needs to be thinking quite a bit differently from this. Granted there is always a need to optimize performance against a benchmark. But the Director, unlike the Manager, needs to be much more focused on setting new standards for excellence. The Director needs to reset the bar at a higher level and move past organic or incremental improvements as the measure of success. The Director must inspire a team to embrace improvements that are orders of magnitude higher than the status quo. Whereas a Manager needs to be strong at leading a team to execute within a process, the Director needs to lead a team to adopt new and uncomfortable processes that can produce multi-level jumps in performance if executed effectively.
My recommendation, if you want to make a successful jump to Director, is to start focusing less on improving upon your team’s historical performance and start focusing on how to become the best team in the world at whatever discipline you hold. In my opinion, too few teams and departments set lofty enough goals for themselves and artificially limit their potential by fixating on incremental improvements instead of the pursuit of greatness.
Teach the Model. Don’t Prescribe the Action
Manager-level leaders can be effective, at least on a small scale, by accurately prescribing approaches and actions and holding the team accountable for executing them. Telling team members “what to do and how to do it” can, for a while, produce reasonable results. But this approach does not scale well at the Director level and above. Once you start managing larger teams and developing new managers yourself, a mindset shift is required.
Directors, unlike managers, need to excel at teaching instead of prescribing. A great Director level leader teaches “why we do things the way we do” instead of just “what we do and how we do it”. There is a big difference between the two approaches.
For example, in Marketing, it’s one thing to be able to tell people what the message and positioning is for a specific customer segment. This is Manager-level thinking. You accurately communicate what the message is so they can build and execute campaigns. You tell them what it is and they learn to do it.
The Director, on the other hand, needs to truly understand the model for creating the messaging. The Director needs to understand how to build effective messaging in any scenario and know why the messaging is the way it is. The Director needs to know the architecture for messaging and be able to teach others how to do it effectively.
Learning the fundamental models for the key functional processes and competencies in your discipline is a key developmental milestone in your career and a gate keeper to achieving the Director level in my opinion. I’m frequently surprised by how few managers (and Directors) can’t really articulate WHY they do things the way they do. They know they work but not WHY they work. They don’t understand the models behind the processes and practices and therefore can’t effectively teach it to others.
My recommendation is to become a student of your discipline. Not just at the surface level either. You need to really invest time and effort in understanding the models behind your profession to so you can teach people how to think about things vs. telling them what action to take.
Inevitably, every career runs up against road blocks. For me, the biggest sticking point was at the Director level and I see a similar phenomenon in the clients I coach and the employees I manage. I hope my observations and lessons are helpful to any would-be Directors out there. And, for those of you who are already there, I’d love to hear about the lessons you learned along the way.