For Superstars in Training – Part 2 – How to Become a Director

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Management, Self Care, Vision

As I discussed in last week’s article, professional advancement is a developmental path, with different core challenges at each point along the way. Last week, I talked about the competencies you need to make the transition from individual contributor to manager.  To make the leap from a manager’s position to Director, you need to internalize all those skills, and many more.

Just as when grooming yourself to become a manager, as you aim for the Director’s office there are predictable stumbling blocks that may hold you back. Some pertain to your changing responsibilities which call on different ways of thinking, acting, and managing your time. Others may have to do with how your natural style plays out within the role you aspire to. If you already are a Director, do share and discuss these with the managers in your leadership team:

First stop being a know-it-all. As a manager, you are first-among-equals in a specialty. To contend for a Director’s slot you need substantial cross-functional knowledge. Collaborate and sit on councils with cross-functional peers. Pursue rotations into other functional areas of the company. As a Director, you will oversee a function larger and more complex than you could ever master. Get used to surrounding yourself with people who outmatch you in their specific expertise. Focus on supporting and challenging them to do their very best and coordinating their efforts with others. Up until now you’ve been first violin. Practice conducting the orchestra.

Know yourself. Similarly, become intimately familiar with your strengths and weaknesses, always two sides of the same coin, and acknowledge your shortcomings. Many inexperienced leaders surround themselves with near-clones. More skillful leaders surround themselves with a variety of operating styles and expertise, so that the team notices and attends to what falls in one another’s blind spots – especially the leader’s. Acting together, the team becomes far stronger than the sum of its parts.

Think and act strategically. Managers do things right; leaders do the right things. Show that you look beyond the to-do list. There are never enough resources to go around. Of the several initiatives the team could pursue, which offer the most leverage? What must your organization conquer now to be positioned to handle its shifting responsibilities next year? In three to five years?

Embed your vision in the team culture. Every member of your team must internalize the mission, strategy, and tactical goals of the organization, and act accordingly. This doesn’t happen magically after a strategic planning retreat (you do hold those, don’t you?). Your organizing principles only become part of the culture when the team hears them, consistently and compellingly, in your every interaction and communication with them.

Develop your team! You seriously hamper your own ability to progress until you emphasize this. As subordinates take on more you can focus strategically, demonstrating readiness to take the next step professionally. One executive I have watched for years has an explicit goal of turning over 50% of her tasks each year to her leadership team. She has advanced swiftly because this frees her up to take on challenges keeping her boss awake at night.

This isn’t about simply shoving responsibilities downstream, but rather taking the time to coach and develop your reports individually, and investing in the outside resources needed to raise the level of their game, individually and as a group. This also requires grooming your successor from day one, so that your team is in good hands as you move up and out.

Become a thought leader. In every conversation, are you adding value based on your competencies? Are you well read in your field? Do you bring a global perspective of your industry to the way you strategize and do business? Do you ask provocative questions inspiring others to look beyond the obvious or safe solutions? Are your opinions and recommendations respected by others? Do you pursue best practices that elevate your organization’s performance? What about transformational solutions to leverage limited resources and drive innovation?

Cultivate a strong personal brand. Just like Lady Gaga and Michael Jordan, Bill Gates and Larry Page have a consciously created public image. If you weren’t in a political environment as a manager, you certainly will be as a Director. Be very clear what you stand for. Strive to perform and communicate from those values and attributes. Cultivate executive presence. Create visibility for yourself and your accomplishments, not just among your colleagues but at your boss’s level and above. This isn’t brown-nosing, it’s vital for advancement. Develop a strong community of cross-functional colleagues. Demonstrate your understanding of the greater corporate good and produce win-win solutions for everyone, not just your functional area.

Almost every aspect of personal style becomes both an asset and a hindrance to performing well as a Director, making great self-awareness crucial. However two barriers could be particularly deadly to advancing and thriving at this level, should your natural style run in the opposite direction:

Expect the unexpected. Some people are at their best when they have a detailed road map to work against and can follow it through to the end. They thrive on creating and running a well-oiled machine, and they can make superlative managers but they aren’t always so great in the Director’s seat. In today’s climate of accelerating change, your team may need a roadmap but you provide it knowing it’s a living document, under constant revision. If this goes against the grain, firmly embed the idea that part of the plan is that the plan will change. If you can’t internalize that, you will fail miserably (and be miserable) in the unpredictable environment of leadership.

Embrace risk. Nokia used to dominate the cell phone market. Now it is struggling for survival. This, despite the fact that they developed touch screen and tablet technology well before competitors. An overly conservative leadership declined to bring these products to market and their timidity may bankrupt the company. Boldly going where no one has gone before takes courage in the face of uncertainty, and a willingness to risk possible failure. Give yourself a time frame to gather data and evaluate risks. Then make a decision. Know in your heart that if you stand there admiring the problem, someone will run you over.

“Great!” you’re thinking. “Now I know WHAT to do, but HOW the heck do I actually do that?” Contact me to take advantage of a free consultation exploring what stands in the way of becoming a superstar, and how I can help you accelerate your professional growth and the effectiveness of your organization. I look forward to talking to you soon.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.For Superstars in Training – Part 2 – How to Become a Director