Climbing the Ladder Requires a Whole New Set of Skills
Developing managers is a key skillset needed at the director level, requiring those in leadership roles to teach.
So, how do you get there?
Do you need tenure? More education, like an MBA? What about more coaching or training?
Brendan Reid should know. He’s now chief marketing officer at Ceridian, one of the largest software companies in the country, despite having “made every career mistake in the book,” he said. His missteps are detailed in his own book, Stealing the Corner Office.
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“The most important characteristic I look for in high-potential directors is a talent for developing managers,” he said. “This is arguably the most important thing a director does for a company. It’s how the company secures its future success. Without a strong and consistent pipeline of managers, a company will ultimately fizzle out.”
Reid explained one can achieve some measure of success at the manager level by simply directing team members to behave as they did when they were a contributor. There is some value to be gained from this and you will likely see incremental improvement for a while. However, this approach begins to fail at the director level.
“At this level, you really need to excel at teaching the unique qualities required to be a great manager and be committed to doing it,” he said. “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.”
Next, it’s important to establish yourself as a cross-functional leader, he explained. At the contributor and manager level projects tend to be contained to an individual team or department, so you can get away without mastering the art of cross functional leadership—for a while, he said. A director must frequently lead projects that span many groups and departments, some of which are not directly managed by the director. This requires an entirely new set of leadership and influence skills.
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“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,” Reid said. “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.”
Another goal is to set new standards for excellence.
“You can have success as a manager, for a while at least, by optimizing a team’s performance against the current benchmark,” he explained. “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.”
Reid recommended focusing less on improving upon a team’s historical performance and more on how to become the best team in the world, regardless of discipline.
Lastly, Reid said “teaching, not showing” is key when making the move from manager to director.
“Teach the model, don’t prescribe the action,” he said. “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.”
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Reid said manager-level leaders can be effective 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 produce reasonable results. However, this approach does not scale well at the director level and above.
Making the leap from manager to director is difficult. Not only are you dealing with fewer positions available at the director level, but the job demands the largest fundamental shift in skillset wehn compared to any of the career levels.
“My recommendation is to become a student of your discipline,” he said. “Not just at the surface level. You need to really invest time and effort in understanding the models behind your profession too so you can teach people how to think about things versus telling them what action to take.”
Jean Thilmany is an engineering and science writer in Saint Paul, Minn.