The Simple Secret to Getting Ahead in Tech

George-Roberts by

A couple of weeks ago, I read a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about Leyla Seka’s rise through the Salesforce ranks. You can read the full article here (and should absolutely take the 10 minutes to do so), but the gist of it is that Seka — who started at Salesforce in 2008 as a Director of Product Marketing — decided at some point to take her career trajectory into her own hands. Rather than wait for promotions and clear direction, she proactively sought more responsibility. As a result, she rose faster than she might have otherwise.

The article reminded me of my career with Oracle.

When I joined the company in 1990, my goal was to eventually become an executive VP and run North America. It wasn’t an unrealistic goal, but it also wasn’t one that was going to be achieved by waiting for my bosses to push me up the ladder. So, soon after I joined, I decided to get into a rhythm every six months of scheduling a meeting with my boss to talk about my performance. To me, that meeting was a clear opportunity to find out what I was doing right, what I could improve on, and how I could prepare myself for the next role.

That meeting didn’t always go well (sometimes, I learned more about what I needed to improve than what I was doing well). But it was always valuable because it allowed me and my boss to connect, sync up on where I was going, and chart a course for more responsibility and skill set improvement.

Proactive vs. Reactive Career Development

Unfortunately, most employees aren’t so eager to have those conversations or get proactive in scheduling regular meetings with their direct manager to discuss how to improve and prepare for the next career step.

In fact, they assume that requesting those meetings — particularly if the boss might view them as unnecessary — is an annoyance. So, instead, they do their jobs to the best of their abilities, bide time, and hope that their performance speaks for itself. I consider that approach as reactive career development not proactive career development.

Here’s the problem with going that route: As Seka found out at Salesforce, doing a great job does not always guarantee a promotion. In fact, taking a reactive approach to career development (or mistakenly assuming you aren’t “management material”) often leads to employees self-limiting their potential and getting lost in the shuffle or unnecessarily leaving the company to further there career.

Consider this quote from Seka in the WSJ piece:

leyla seka_circle“(I realized it wasn’t my bosses limiting me), I was limiting myself. It was a very big life lesson for me […] I almost missed this opportunity, by shutting the doors on myself.”

— Leyla D. Seka, SVP & GM, Desk.com at salesforce.com

Thankfully, she didn’t.

Instead, Seka took the proactive route. In 2013, while considering taking a job elsewhere to expedite her career development, she decided to request a meeting with her boss — Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris — to talk about where she fit into the company’s plans. Harris was shocked to hear she was considering leaving and Seka says she was shocked to learn Harris and Salesforce had already been talking about promoting her. Shortly after that conversation, Seka became the Senior VP and general manager of Salesforce-owned Desk.com.

The Right Way to Proactively Chart Your Career Climb

Here’s the reality of any promotion: Being good at your current job isn’t a full reflection that you’re ready for the next one. This is because the skills required for more senior positions are often very different than those you use in your current role. So, in order to prove you’re ready for a jump, you need to start preparing and learning how to do the new job before you actually get it.

To do that, you need to understand:

  • What your skill gaps are now
  • What skills will be necessary in the new role
  • How to go about acquiring/improving those skills

A big piece of that process is simply having a conversation with the person in the company who knows you best: Your boss.

Even if your boss is telling you that you’re doing great and you don’t need a quarterly or semi-annual performance review, ask for one anyway. That face time is a fantastic opportunity to create some dedicated time to talk about what you’re great at, what you can improve on, and how you can position yourself for the next step — whether that’s inside or outside of your existing company.

Managers & Executives: Don’t Wait for Employees to Ask for Promotions

When I finally reached my dream job as the EVP of North American Sales at Oracle, I instituted a policy where I’d sit down with all of my people every six months to talk about how they were doing, where I saw their career going, and where they wanted to go. It didn’t always lead to an immediate promotion, but it created transparency and a sense of mutual respect within the organization. My team understood their value and I understood their aspirations, which made charting career growth a simpler, more collaborative process.

With that in mind, here’s my advice to every boss out there: Don’t put all the weight on your employees’ shoulders. Create opportunities for them to grow their careers and look for ways to help them develop their skills. For executives and their companies, this proactive employee development delivers value in several ways:

  • First, it improves the skills of your employees and managers and shows just how much you value their skills and dedication to the business.
  • Second, when employees see a clear path to promotion and professional growth, they end up more committed to their jobs and the business.
  • Third, you are teaching your team the skills to make them more effective managers and team builders by setting a good example.
  • Fourth, it is great for employee morale and excellent for talent retention. When your team sees how you value their input and take the time to meet with them to help them prepare for the next step in their career the entire organization becomes stronger and more effective.

It’s All About the People

I’ll close this out with one last thought: When considering how, when, and why to promote someone, just commit to the very simple tenant of focusing on what really matters: Talent. Remember, people are the only real strategic advantage your company has. They build your products. They market and sell to your customers. They support and make your customers successful so in the end they buy more of what you sell and become great references in your market place. All of which makes you more successful.

Behind all great companies are great organizations built from great teams of great people!

Photo by: Joshua Earle