Plot Your Course to a Corner Office in 5 Easy Steps

Ask a dozen technology executives to describe their career path and you’ll likely get 12 different stories.

ExecutiveThat’s both good and bad news. On the one hand, the ability to reach a corner office from different directions means aspiring CIOs and CTOs have a lot of options. On the other, the lack of a defined career path makes it difficult to plot your course.

What to do? Try following these five steps.

Step 1: Assess Your Talents, Skills and Interests

Are you comfortable in the spotlight? Are you politically savvy? Do you know how to manage expenses and balance a budget? That’s good. But although research suggests that leadership is about two thirds made and one-third born, you can leapfrog contenders if you’re intrinsically bold, assertive, dynamic, innovative and socially aware.

If you’re shy or risk-averse by nature you can still become an executive, but you’ll need coaching, mentoring and stretch assignments to acquire the needed skills, behaviors and temperament.

Step 2: Identify Your Sweet Spot

Next, research the market to determine the ideal role for you. The key is to set a realistic and achievable target since responsibilities, compensation and career path vary by industry and company size. Remember the famous words of Abraham Lincoln: “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”

Today, three out of four CIOs focus on internal business processes or IT improvements, not on developing new products or services. But companies are increasingly seeking hybrid CIOs who can create systems to support global growth. So sales, marketing and e-commerce knowledge will be considered advantageous. So will stints in supply-chain management and logistics, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Conversely, CTOs in high-tech firms tend to be visionary mavericks, with advanced degrees in engineering and pedigrees from major consulting firms. They also have exemplary presentation skills and the confidence to raise capital for their pet projects.

Create a forward-looking list of must-have traits, competencies and experience by researching job descriptions, the projected evolution of the position and studying the backgrounds and career paths of current executives.

Don’t overlook the need for board room skills, a strong professional network and a dynamic personal brand, especially if you want to pursue a role in a large, public company, where connections often trump technical expertise.

Step 3: Dare to Compare

Compare the must-have requirements to your personal inventory, noting whether you need to acquire, enhance or maintain each required competency. Rank them by importance and indicate how you plan to satisfy the top requirements. Probably, it will be through some combination of formal education, work experience, training and certifications, mentoring, networking, public speaking, community involvement and so forth.

Step 4: Plot Your Course

Now that you know the requirements for your dream job, and how you plan to meet them, you’re ready to plan a series of career-enhancing moves. The path to success isn’t always a straight line, so think about lateral moves, dips and crests and these tips as you plot your course.

  • Earn your degree(s) sooner rather than later so you can compete for critical stepping stone positions such as business analyst, IT manager or director, product manager, vendor manager or VP of engineering.
  • Start out in application development or software engineering and waste no time in establishing yourself as a leader. Current executives typically moved into project management or their first supervisory role by age 25.
  • Broad experience is preferable, so working at a small company or a major consulting firm could provide a springboard to bigger things. In this regard, cutting your teeth in an IT organization that utilizes a matrix project management structure might be an advantage. Or, consider an embedded role in a business unit, or a stint at a cloud computing firm as a way to broaden your experience and acquire an external view of the IT operation.
  • Seek fast-track opportunities. These are jobs that let you develop several must-have competencies simultaneously while providing unlimited opportunities to build your brand and professional contacts. Even if a fast-track job pays less, or does not offer a sexy title, it may boost your earning power over the long haul.
  • Don’t overlook the need to establish yourself as an industry leader by contributing to open source projects, publishing code, blogging or mentoring newcomers.

Step 5: Conduct Periodic Reviews

Those who manage to reach the technical C-suite typically changed jobs every two years. Therefore, you need to review and update your plan every six months, note your accomplishments, and use the plan as a guide to make stay or go decisions and evaluate offers. Every job and every assignment needs to propel you up the ladder once you set your sights on a corner office.