So you found your way into the technology industry. Maybe you studied computer science in school or just fell into the space like many of us. Whether you’re only a few years into your professional career or someone who feels stuck in the middle management layer, you might be wondering what you need to do to get yourself to the C-suite.
As a partner at SPMB, one of the largest retained executive search firms focused on technology and innovation, I have a courtside view into what characteristics and experiences it takes to land an executive role. To answer this question you must first think about the types of executives that technology companies need to grow, evolve, and thrive. These are the skills necessary to become an executive and what actions you can take to acquire those attributes over time.
The 4 Qualities You Need to Become an Executive in Tech
- Ability to scale-up your skills.
- Networking and people skills to recruit and retain top talent.
- Big systems thinking to come up with companywide solutions.
- Reputation as an expert in your industry.
1. Can Scale-up Their Skills
It’s not healthy from a cost or culture perspective for businesses to frequently replace their executives. Companies need executives that they won’t outgrow, at least for a meaningful amount of time. As a company scales, the leadership team is required to handle issues and situations that they’ve never encountered before. To vet for this, the companies I’ve partnered with will require candidates to have progressive career experience where they have continuously taken on more responsibility and have overcome a wide breadth of challenges.
How to prove your ability to scale
If you’re interviewing for a new internal or external role that is a step above the team size you’ve managed and/or scale you’ve seen, showcase your potential to rise to the occasion.
But how? You should highlight your past experience of taking new charters, risks, and overcoming challenges throughout your career. For example, if you aren’t leading a team today, ask your boss how you can help train and mentor new members of your team. From there, see if you have the ability to become a formal team lead. If not, see if you can help to spearhead other important companywide projects.
Beyond that, the most concrete way to illustrate your potential readiness for a step-up role is by achieving a track record of success and growth within one company environment. If you are looking to gain the necessary experience to become an executive, I would advise you to stay at a company for at least three-to-five years during which time you successfully take on more responsibility and risk.
2. Has the People Management Skills to Recruit and Retain Top Talent
Management experience is a known skill set needed for most all upper-level leadership roles, but it’s just as important to have recruiting skills to go along with that. It doesn’t matter what functional area you are in within a tech business, if your goal is to rise to a top-level role, you’ll need to strengthen your recruiting and management skills to acquire the best talent for your teams and then successfully retain them.
How to gain Recruiting and management abilities
My advice is to start building your recruiting and hiring competencies early in your career, even before you’re in management. Ask your boss to become part of the hiring process/panel for your team. You can also offer to help with recruiting efforts at your alma mater to bring new talent into the company. If you work for an earlier-stage business, there might not be a proper recruiting function so probe into where you can step in and assist in hiring, even if it’s just actively sharing referrals from your network.
One of the main reasons people leave companies is because of people and management issues. To keep high retention and performance of your team you need to become the best leader you can be by actively developing and improving your management skills. Once you move into a management role, ask for internal training, educate yourself by reading books, and/or find out if there are outside management training resources available to your company. This will ultimately lead to your success as a leader and help showcase your ability to move into the C-suite.
3. Can Come Up With Companywide Solutions
At work do you make the trains run on time by following orders from the top — or do you lead the strategic direction of the org? This is the difference between being just a manager versus a true leader. The role of an executive is to partner with the broader leadership team to implement solutions, processes, and changes that solve companywide problems and serve the needs of the overall organization. An executive leader will tie their organization’s goals into the greater objectives of the business.
How to Develop Strategic Thinking
The best executives I’ve met stay curious, are collaborative, and make their team’s goals widely known across the organization. To do this at any level, be proactive and set up a recurring time to meet with your peers and others across the organization with whom you don’t typically interact. Keeping a pulse on your peers, stakeholders, key drivers, and goals will enable you to have more success in setting your own objectives by tying them into the company’s longer-term objectives.
4. Have a Strong Reputation in Their Industry
My clients desire leaders who can bring in industry knowledge and think strategically on how their company’s products work and compete with others in the market. Leaders obtain this knowledge by utilizing outside counsel and opinions from other leaders in tech. From my perspective, the best executives understand that they don’t know everything. The most successful leaders have a growth mindset and foster relationships with peers and mentors in their field. They are able to sharpen their leadership skills, increase their knowledge, grow their influence, and keep a pulse on market trends by surrounding themselves with trusted advisors.
How to Build Your Network and Influence
Reach out to your peer group internally and externally to start creating those relationships now. Your peer group today will make up some of the leadership teams of tomorrow. Beyond that, get yourself a mentor or two. Is there someone in your company or industry that you respect and want to learn from? Reach out to them asking for a 30-minute Zoom or in-person coffee meeting to learn from her or him. Come with a clear agenda, do your research, and be respectful of their time. Be straightforward in terms of what you’d like to get out of the meeting and, hopefully, the longer-term relationship. I know many executives who have the desire to pass along their knowledge to others but simply don’t have a lot of time to do it. So, if one of your target mentors says they are too busy, try someone else and don’t lose hope or momentum.
Not everyone has the desire to become a C-level executive but if you do, you’ll need to focus on key growth areas that probably don’t fall into your daily job responsibilities. My guidance is for you to center your energy on taking on new challenges, lean into the recruiting efforts at your company, create close relationships with your peers and stakeholders, and actively build your network across your industry. Beyond that, enjoy being a lifelong learner! There’s always more to learn and achieve.