A typical issue I see for first-timer CTOs/VPEs is that they do not fully comprehend the meaning of being executives. Tech executives that have the tech part nailed down, but not the exec part. In my upcoming book, The Tech Executive Operating System, I call these glorified managers. They have a fancier title, but, at their core, they are still doing the same things any good manager would do.
Based on my work with tech executives worldwide, I want to share what I see as the necessary focus shifts and personal upgrades to leverage your new role fully.
First, you have to claim your seat around the table where decisions are made. Maintain an ongoing relationship with your boss (which, for this article, I’ll assume is the CEO). Have regular one-on-ones where you discuss product strategy, objectives, and business matters.
So, for example, you might need to elbow your way to certain meetings or leadership forums (if you weren’t invited to them). Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to speak up, either to ask questions and make sure that you understand what is being discussed or to voice your concerns and ideas.
Another part of this is not to be an order-taker. Rather than being fed a roadmap and committing to it, you should participate in its formation and directing it to maximize the value your team will deliver.
A good executive is proactive and does not merely await instructions. That’s a good one, mind you—it takes a whole lot more to be great. By moving upstream, you should be aware of the business side of things, opportunities, and the overall strategy. Put that into action by taking complete ownership of your organization and coming up with ways to add value and increase your impact.
You might have heard of Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership concept. That’s an excellent first step. Things are your problem first. You need to regularly innovate, reevaluate, and grow—both personally and across your team—or you will degenerate. Part of that requires you to learn to use the right language and perspective. A VP of Engineering that uses jargon and tech terms when trying to push for a change or initiative will have a hard time making their case. You should be articulating your arguments with business ROI in mind. Otherwise, you’ll end up trying to explain something to the board, and they’ll hear gibberish.
Moreover, I often have to help clients realize that some boundaries are only there because they decided so. We get caught in preconceptions about what’s ok to approach and what isn’t. In a busy company where the executive team is truly a team, people are likely to very open to ideas for collaboration and improvement.
No More Handholding
Similarly, you have to take full ownership not just of your work plan but also when it comes to your personal development and growth. I agree it is not ideal, but there’s no denying it is less frequent for executives to receive mentoring and personal growth goals from the CEO. At a certain point, you have to take matters into your own hands. That might happen by deciding on growth aspects personally or learning how to slowly bring those up in your regular one-on-ones with the CEO.
Further, it is rare to get organized orientation/onboarding and ongoing training. In my book, I cover a recipe for concocting a personal crash course for kickstarting your product mastery. For continual growth, get yourself a reliable support system. A coach or an exceptional mastermind group can make all the difference in your progress.
This boils down to the fact that the role is what you make of it. Sometimes there’s only minimal direction, and you will need to find ways to learn what you don’t know and find the best ways to bring value. It might sound tough, but I think that’s exactly what makes the job a fun one.
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