Career Development Lessons From Fortune 500 Executives

Climb The Ladder

At the executive level, you have a broad view of the organization. You contribute to the strategy. You also lead challenging projects and improvements. In my research and writing this year, I have had the pleasure to interview a number of leading executives. Here are some of the principles and insights I have learned from that work.

Career Development: The Long Path To The Executive Suite

Becoming an executive at a Fortune 500 company takes years of effort, ambition and talent. In my interviews with leading executives, I have learned several key lessons and questions to ask. As you plan goals for 2016 and beyond, consider these points.

  • Building A Technical Reputation. As you start your career journey, your technical reputation (or “subject matter expertise”) is essential to getting started. If you are interested in becoming a Chief Information Officer, you will probably want to start your career in engineering or software development. Building your credibility as an individual contributor is vital as you begin. Later in your career, your ability to understand details will continue to matter. For example, Bill Gates often asked detailed technical questions about products at Microsoft in the 1990s (source: Quora). It is important to note that he was the CEO of global company by that point. Yet, he continued to draw on his early expertise in programming and technology to build better products.
  • Saying Yes To New Assignments. At first glance, you might think that a given job has firm limits. For example, you might think that a mail clerk role has limited advancement potential. Yet, there are creative ways to stretch that role. Brian Glazer, author of A Curious Mind and known for his work in film and television production, started his career in the entertainment industry delivering documents, scripts and other materials. Why did he find it valuable? Simply put, he viewed the role as an opportunity to meet and connect with influential people in his industry. What if you are an IT manager? How can you apply this principle to your career development? You can volunteer for new projects such as building an employee onboarding program. Or you can be the first to volunteer to work on a new assignment in staff meetings with your manager. This strategy is easy to do and easy not to do. You can think “I’m busy and I don’t want to get loaded up with more random work tasks.” If you are keen to grow, saying yes to new assignments is a time tested strategy.

Becoming A Leader At The Organization

The desire to grow and contribute matters. Yet it is not enough for you to reach the executive level. In my research with executives, several of them emphasized the importance of leading and working with people. Leadership is a broad term that covers many different activities. I pressed for deeper explanations and came up with the following three lessons.

Develop A Customer Focus

A focus on the customer came up several times in my research. This focus may mean the end customer who ultimately pays the bills for the company as a whole. Or it may mean an internal customer – the internal customer definition often matters for IT leaders. In either case, successful executives know that systems, processes, IT and work of all kinds are only undertaken to serve a customer. Learning how to serve those customers is an essential skill for you to master. Take these tips in hand to improve your customer service.

  • Discover the end customer. Let’s say that you are in an IT department that supports a call centre. At first glance, your customer is the call centre (or more likely, the manager of the call centre). However, it may be more helpful to think about the customer of the customer. In the case of the call centre, think about the people who are calling in with service requests. What can you do to make their lives easier? That might mean analyzing call logs and trouble tickets for ideas to improve the company’s product or website.
  • Learn how the customer determine success. Learning what exactly your customer wants may be difficult in some cases. Start with the basics such as providing polite service. For complex and long term relationships, look for other motivations that matter to the customer. If you have a customer in the financial industry, they may be very interested to know more about your risk management and internal audit capabilities. Such considerations may be a higher priority than price. Those are the insights you can develop with time.


Learn A New Business

Did you ever hear about the “Grade 9 effect”? It describes the frustration that graduating elementary students feel when they start at a new school. Likewise, over the course of a career, executives will have to start over several times. If you join a new organization, your need to learn and study the new company will be apparent. However, learning a new business also matters in the case of promotions and internal transfers. Here are a few methods that executives use when they are learning a new business.

  • Go on a listening tour. When you start in a new organization, there is great value in simply listening to the people who are already there. There are different approaches. You can request a tour, give a short presentation or simply go on a series of Q&A sessions. During the first few weeks in a new role, listening to your
  • Read about the industry. For those changing industries, it is essential to apply yourself to read about the company. You can read annual reports, create a Google News alert and set up meetings with people in your network.

Of course, it is also important to develop your people. That’s a whole other area that deserves to be explored in depth. As a starting point, I refer you to two of my previous articles: The Truth About Employee Engagement and 3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager.

Further Reading For Aspiring Executives

How the CIOs of 4 Fortune 500 companies got their jobs. Lead how four executives found their way into the Chief Information Officer role.

How CIOs can ensure M&A projects pay off. Few activities attract more interest in the corporate world than M&A deals. Find out how technology executives contribute to these projects.

Fortune Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts. The book emphasizes entrepreneurs rather than career professionals. That said, there is plenty to be learned from the excellent profiles of up and coming people in a variety of professions.


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