Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

How To Be An Executive

I've been at the VP or CTO level for the last 20 years, in about a dozen different companies (not necessarily a bad thing, but that's another discussion) and one question I keep getting asked during performance reviews and over beers (or while doing a performance review over a beer!) is "How do I get to be at your level?".  I must get asked this at least a half dozen times a year, without fail.  And it's a good question.  The problem is whether there's a good answer!

What does it take to be a senior executive in a company?  Is it because I can code faster or better than any other developer? (Nope!)  Is it because I look better in a suit? (Nope again!)  Is it because I know how to talk to people, write reports, present in front of large audiences, or generally behave without embarrassing myself or my company? (Nope for sure!)  So what is it?  Over the last 30 years of working I've watched those in positions above me, and for the last twenty years watched my peers, all to try and answer this question.  And curiously, there's no single answer except for one that might sound way too arrogant: executives (at least in the R&D space) are almost always right when they make a decision.

Sure, a technology executive has to be able to understand code (or at least understand the technology).  They have to be comfortable working with large teams, presenting under pressure, dealing with customers and employees, and a host of other things.  But that's not a unique set of skills.  What does seem unique with the executives I've studied is that their gut instincts are almost always right.  And when they make snap decisions, they are almost always right.  Not always, but mostly.

To test this, I've kept track over the last decade or so, and I seem to hit about 95% correct when I make decisions.  Sure, I've made mistakes.  But they tend to be small and often don't hurt anyone or any company.  In other words, my instincts as to what to do is almost always bang on.  And I see that in all the other technology executives too.  Sure, we've got the brains and the training.  We've got the various skills we need to make it as an executive.  But, we wouldn't remain executives for long if we kept on being wrong.  Companies hire us to steer R&D and engineering teams, and to get it right almost always.  And that is the crux: the best executives get it right almost always.

Can you teach this skill?  I don't think so.  It's a combination of experience, analysis, guesswork, and dumb luck.  But heavy on the experience and analysis.  And that's something we just either have or refine over time, and the more "right" you are in your decision, the more you get noticed (and promoted). 

Think about it.  What kind of VP or CTO would I be if I had to ask everyone what they thought about something and then let majority rule.  That's not leadership, that's managing a conference!  Instead, it's fine to get opinions, especially ones counter to what I think, but I want to be able to arrive at a decision almost instantly and have the confidence to know I'll be right almost always.  And that's just something some people have and some don't.  I can't explain why, but I do know it when I find it in peers and team members.

Sure, there's a lot goes into being an executive at most companies.  We have to know law, accounting, technology, HR, marketing, and a whole pile of other stuff.  But when we make a decision, it had better be right, or the company can't count on us.