Young and ambitious technical professionals have the C-Suite in sight. They’re hungry for the increased compensation, responsibility, and authority that come with a CIO, CTO, or VP of technology role. To be successful in their goals, they need advice from seasoned technical professionals who have climbed the long arduous path from the bottom to the top.
This article has been written by two such professionals. Jaimie Cole is the VP of Technology at iCardiac, a relatively new biomedical research company, and Colin Rhodes is the CTO/CIO of eHealth Technologies, a midsize medical records clearinghouse located in Upstate New York. Both Jaimie and Colin have extensive experience in technology and have spent a combined fifty years in the industry.
While there is no prescription for how to get into the C-Suite, some basic approaches will significantly improve your chances of getting there. In this article, we’ll focus on five areas you should put into your five-year plan.
Many technical people find building strong professional relationships outside their immediate work environment to be a challenge. After all, if you spend your entire day with technical people, you’ll be immersed in their culture and world.
Venturing out to see the rest of the company is equally important. Studies have shown that people with deep networks are promoted more frequently and are seen as higher achievers, largely because of their ability to build relationships.
Deep relationships don’t consist of going out for lunch or knowing each other’s children’s names. The best relationships are built on mutual respect and trust forged in joint projects where you’ve had a chance to show you have each other’s back.
Strong performers work on both vertical and horizontal relationships and understand their peers’, managers’, and subordinates’ needs. When you look around you at the people you work with, ask yourself if they trust you and if you trust them. This is a good measure of where you stand in the organization, but be careful not to confuse trusting someone with liking them, as these are two different concepts. Trust is the confidence you have in someone’s competence and character. Competence is demonstrated by consistently delivering quality results in a timely manner. Character is demonstrated by making decisions with integrity, being inclusive, staying away from the politically correct solution that may be entirely incorrect. Be viewed as one that gets to the right answer independently, even though it may be counter to the prevailing political winds. But do it in a way that does not sacrifice anyone’s career or credibility—having each other’s back, so to speak.
The further up the management chain that you go, the more relationships matter. This is especially true when dealing with outside suppliers. Remember, a true win is when you both can work together with as little friction as possible, anticipating each other’s moves, and helping each other get over the finish line.
The easiest way to build relationships is to treat others with respect and dignity. Don’t bother stroking egos or playing games, just be authentic, real, and sometimes even a little vulnerable. Other people trust those who trust them enough to let them in, and all the bluster and bravado in the world can’t replace this simple act. One of the best ways to build rapport in your relationships is to schedule one-on-one conversations. Conversations are different when they are one-on-one versus in a larger group. You are more likely to get to know the character of the other person in these one-on-one meetings.
What’s your five-year plan for your education? You’re going to be working with some very bright people, and you’d better have a desire to engage in lifelong learning if you plan to keep up.
There is a growing movement in tech against going out and taking an MBA to supplement your technical skills. Much of what you need to know can be learned on the job or through self-study. If you take online courses and show initiative by learning something new every day, that’s enough for me. People with these characteristics always do well.
Remember to balance hard and soft skills. Great senior technical managers are multi-faceted. They write articulately, communicate with others, and can still configure machines, write code, and inspire the troops by showing they haven’t lost their edge. There is always an element of the generalist in such people, but they have deep pillars of supporting skills built over many years of hard work.
Research and explore seminars, webinars, lunch-and-learn sessions, local networking learning sessions that are offered over breakfast or lunch. Ask others what books they have read recently that have helped them look at their work or career from a new perspective.
If you get the opportunity to build your own team, hire for attitude and train for skill. Enthusiasm, self-initiation, and self-motivation are difficult, if not impossible, skills to train. They are skills that should be intrinsic to you and to those that you hire. In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he talks about “getting the right people on the bus” and “getting the wrong people off the bus.” This is a key insight; people fit together in teams like jigsaw puzzles and no amount of pushing will fit the wrong piece into the open space.
If you become the manager of the team, realize that it takes time to manage people. They need direction, objectives, coaching, and correction. Setting up tasks and expectations for your team takes time. Find an experienced manager outside of your direct reporting relationship and ask if they can be your mentor while you cut your teeth on this new responsibility. Experienced managers make it look easy—it’s not.
Managing teams is hard because people are involved. Sometimes people are unpredictable. Sometimes you have to remove a great person who unfortunately is in the wrong role. This adds stress to your own job and responsibilities.
There’s a reason why it often takes so long to become a general in the army; strategy is serious business and you are taking the lives of others into your hands when you play at it. If you choose right, your company bursts into flower, and if you choose wrong, well, the flower withers and dies.
Fortunately, you will rarely be developing strategy on your own. A well-developed technology strategy is a series of concepts that have been agreed to by the business owners, product line managers, and other constituents, including your own C-level team. It should show a logical progression from the current state to some desired future state in alignment with the goals and financial means of the corporation.
Building great strategy is hard. It takes a team of executives who can bring different skills to the task, and a fine CEO who can articulate your strategy to investors and shareholders as part of the wider corporate plan. Sometimes you’ll be planning for growth and looking ahead, and other times your mission may to be consolidate your gains or decline gracefully for a period to regroup.
If you are in an early-phase company, breakneck growth is usually the name of the game. You need to know your systems; how they scale, what might break, and what investments are critical. Budgets are tight and highly dependent on revenue coming in the door, so you may have to bide your time for that next big systems changeover. Plans are often short term and the desire for longer-term strategy is often low as the company pivots its way into a market. Don’t let that dissuade you from having something ready to go in your back pocket. You’ll need it eventually.
Middle-phase companies turn to strategy development as a way to overcome some of the gaps left by the frenetic motion of the early phase. The investments needed to scale at this lifecycle point are larger, and the implementation of projects is considerably more complex. It takes considerable time, thought, and the cooperation of others to build out the strategy of a midsize firm. At this point in the company’s development, it might make most sense to outsource some of the implementation of the strategy, but be sure to stay closely involved.
We all hear the phrase “giving back to community,” but how many busy managers have the time to do it? Here’s some great advice that you will never forget: make the time to support your local community. There are so many ways to give back.
Volunteering gives you a chance to network with other people working in different fields and walks of life who you might not come across otherwise. Pick an activity out of your comfort zone that will stretch your skills, such as Habitat for Humanity, reading at the local library, or helping out at an animal shelter. You are only limited by your imagination!
Connect with alumni at the university you attended. Consider presenting yourself and your company in front of a group of students. Maybe think about being an adjunct professor or co-teaching with a professor already on staff. Many university departments look for industry advisers to be part of reviewing and designing curriculum for future students. Your perspective is valuable and can have significant impact on the academic environment.
“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” — Benjamin Franklin
As the CIO and CTO at eHealth Technologies, Colin is responsible for an innovative organization focused on medical records and imaging in Health Information Exchanges. Colin is also an active published author who contributes to a wide range of periodicals including LifeHack.org, Western New York Physician, Corporate IT Magazine, and Autism Parenting Magazine
As VP of Technology at iCardiac Technologies, Jaimie leads the development of software and technology to help the pharmaceutical industry. He is a passionate proponent of agile/lean software development and rapid prototyping and design. He is also an adjunct lecturer at his alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology, in the Computer Engineering department.
Featured photo credit: PicJumbo via picjumbo.com
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