How to Become a VP: 6 Tips from Women Who Have Done It
In politics, the vice president is a strategic partner and back-up to the country's leader. In business, the VP role is similar (though comes with no access to Air Force Two). VPs are high-level managers who oversee departments or functional units and work closely with company CEOs and presidents to help set corporate strategy across the business.
Sound intriguing? If one of your career goals to become a VP, know that there's no linear path and no national election to get there. You'll need to actively manage your career to secure the right experiences, opportunities, and relationships you need to succeed in a VP role.
To help you do that, we spoke with ten women who've reached the VP level and asked them to tell us their stories and pass on their most valuable advice. Here's what they want you to know:
1. Build a wide base of skills.
The single most-repeated piece of advice from all of the VPs we talked to? Diversify what you bring to the table.
Being great at one thing—say, writing code or marketing products—might be the most important success factor in an individual contributor role. But to have a shot at the VP level, you need to expand your skill set.
"Having a breadth of skills becomes more important as our careers progress," says Susanna Holt, VP of Forge, software company Autodesk's platform business. "Make sure you acquire varied skills, and that people know you have those."
And don't be afraid to leave old skills behind as you acquire new ones, says Megan Hansen, Vice President of People at Smartsheet: "At every key step-change in leadership, you need to show up differently, and that means letting go of things you are probably pretty good at in order to learn new skills. It can be uncomfortable, but if you continue to do what you did to get promoted to a Director role, you will not be showing your capacity for what comes next."
Bridget Kimball, VP & Chief Architect of Intuit's Consumer Group, explains how you'll draw on this knowledge in higher-level roles. "As you advance, your ability to see the big picture is more important than deep knowledge," she says. "You can't be an expert in everything, so pick the areas that you want to invest deeply in and learn enough about the rest to be able to contribute and leverage the strengths of others."
That means that in the beginning and middle of your career, don't be afraid to take opportunities in other functional areas, even if that means making a lateral versus a linear move, says Vicki Muscarella, VP of Engineering and Data within the Specialty Pharma business unit at CoverMyMeds. "I believe there is an advantage to becoming more of a generalist, and I believe that individuals who have the largest impact are T-shaped in experience and knowledge. Breadth, especially for a leader, brings a lot to the table and oftentimes will lead to opportunity. Diversity in background is a real advantage," she says.
And if you're wondering what kind of skills these VPs are talking about, Pam Dodrill, VP of Customer Support and Success at Zapier, has some examples for you. "Are your presentation skills ready for external audiences and large internal audiences? Are you able to show you can get strategic initiatives up and running with cross-functional teams? If you're responsible for revenue, did you meet your goal and also contribute in meaningful ways to help your teammates achieve their goals? If you're not sure, or if the answer is 'no,' then it's essential to find a way to work on those skills," she says.
2. Start thinking about your impact in terms of “how” vs. “what.”
Beyond racking up skills and experience, you'll also need to change the way you drive change at your company. Ashley Karr, VP of B2B Marketing at CarGurus, explains what that looks like:
"When you're early in your career, you're often evaluated on the 'what' of your job, in terms of the results. In my world, the 'what' could be the impact of the campaigns you're delivering on revenue. However, as you move up from a manager to a director and then to VP, it's less of the 'what' and more of the 'how' you're delivering those results. Are you able to influence the decisions of other departments to get them to resource your projects? Are you able to change behavior of other teams in order to deliver better results or change the way you operate? It's a different set of skills that are less visible and concrete, but super critical to the impact you have on an organization."
In order to have the energy and perspective to make that impact, Susan Billingsley, Vice President of Global Marketing at predictive analytics company <intent>, notes how important it is to set boundaries around your responsibilities. "You cannot be a strategic leader when you're constantly reacting from the weeds," she says. A good way to start practicing that strategic thinking? "Anticipate the needs of those around you. You need to understand the long- and short-term needs of the businesses, but you also need to understand how your role and your specific day-to-day actions impact other function leads and leadership, and their ability to do their jobs. People like to work (and promote) those who perform their function well in a way that makes the whole machine better, faster, and stronger. As with anything else, it's not just about you."
3. Don’t assume your managers know you want to become a VP—tell them so yourself.
Women are paid less, promoted less, and have less career satisfaction than men; even at companies with high-profile mentoring programs ostensibly meant to even the playing field for women, men still get 15% more promotions, says a HBS study.
That's why it's vital that women advocate for themselves versus waiting to be noticed and rewarded when it comes to moving up in their company.
As Carolyn Guss, VP of Corporate Marketing at PagerDuty explains, you need to find opportunities to be heard. "This is an easy thing to say but can be hard to do. Remember, you are the most experienced person in the room in your specific role. So be sure to listen to the viewpoints of others, but then speak up and share your own. Don't wait to be asked."
Holt experienced this challenge—advocating for herself— first hand. "I spent many years as an engineer, and then as an engineering manager, before becoming a director and subsequently a VP. I might have progressed faster if I had shown the confidence to ask for opportunities early on," says Holt of her experience climbing the ladder.
And Hansen encourages women to start advocating long before they're ready for the promotion: "Talk to your leader about your desired path. Don't assume that they know. Don't wait until you are ready for the role. Do it now and enroll them on the path with you."
Dana Robinson, VP of Content at streetwear marketplace StockX, suggests women offer to take on projects across the company to show they're serious about stepping up. "I coach women to take big swings that might be outside of the scope or purview of their current role (and comfort zone!) and then use those big swing successes to drive the conversation around growth within the organization. It's important to remember that nobody is sitting in a room waiting for the right moment to promote you; it's on you to convince them that you're worthy of it," she says.
Katy Cockrel, also a VP at StockX, echoes this advice: "Women are often hesitant to make the case for themselves when it comes to things like pay parity and equity of advancement opportunities. It is imperative that you strategically self-promote, highlight your accomplishments, and shape perception of yourself amongst your colleagues and leaders."
4. Find mentors and ask them for feedback.
Though mentorship alone isn't enough to get you a VP spot, having a collection of mentors who are willing to give you their advice and perspective is valuable as you take on more responsibility, said the VPs we interviewed.
And if you're smart about it, you can find a mentor and a sponsor at the same time. As Cockrel explains, "There is some argument between the value of mentors vs. that of sponsors — I find them both to be key and if it's the right person, you can 'kill two birds with one stone.' You want to be sure to tap someone who is highly networked and willing to tap into that network for you, a decisionmaker who is 'in the room' and is willing to advocate for you whilst inside."
Billingsley says she'd describe her path to VP as "blessed by mentors and sponsors." She continues: "My success was, and is, a function of hard work and asking 1,000 smart people for their perspective on how to do things. Find people more experienced than you who are willing to validate or invalidate your thinking and give you the confidence to be bold."
Start finding mentors early in your career, says Holt. "One mistake I made was to not ask for advice enough. Now I know that there are many people out there willing to share their experience and expertise. We just need the confidence to reach out to them."
Be ready to accept criticism as well as praise, and see the value in both. "Learn what areas are holding you back. Conversations like this are hard to hear sometimes — they're called growing pains for a reason! Even if the feedback is hard to hear, listen anyway. Those hard conversations tend to contribute the most fuel to career growth," says Dodrill. "Leadership development takes a 50/50 investment between you and the company you work for. Be sure to self-reflect and contribute everything you can to your growth, don't just expect it to happen because you are a top performer."
It's vital that you lean into your failures to learn from them, says Hansen, especially when you're starting out and still stretching into a new role. She uses her experience as an example: "I had built a career on delivering great work products, as an individual and through individuals. Being a VP meant that I was leading leaders and that was a whole new ballgame that I was not as prepared for as I thought I was. I feel pretty blessed to have had a leader at the time who encouraged and supported my journey, and I worked hard to not make the same mistake twice. Errors were made, but I learned from them by creating a safe space for my team to share what they needed from me, and by getting feedback from my peers and the leaders I partnered with so that I could fail forward and fast."
And keep that always-be-improving mindset even once you reach that VP spot. Janet Vito, VP of Sales and Marketing at uShip, the world's first and largest shipping marketplace, says, "Feeling comfortable means you can easily become complacent. To truly drive business value, you need to be able to think and do 'outside of the box,' be open to all options, and not take the easy route because it's easy to take."
5. Hire and empower great talent.
A key part of leadership is knowing how to build and support a team, and that's especially true for VPs, considering their large set of responsibilities. "It's important to realize that your success is tied to the success of your teams. If they feel supported and that they have ownership of their work, they will achieve amazing results," says Kimball.
That might mean hiring people who are better than you, and Hansen says that's a good thing: "Don't be afraid to hire people more experienced or skilled than you are, as leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room, but about enabling the smart people you hire to do what you hired them to do."
And when you're thinking about empowering the people around you, think beyond your immediate team. "Even more important [than advocating for yourself] is being a champion for other women in your workplace, both your direct reports and your peers. You will thrive by helping to create an environment where all women can thrive," says Robinson.
6. Make sure there's space for your ambition at your company—and that it's the kind of company you want to be leading.
"At any given company, there are a limited number of VP level roles," says Karr. "You may be doing an amazing job and be on a promotion track, but at some point, you're limited by the availability of what your company has to offer. If you are well-respected and are ready for that next level, but are not sure that a role exists that meets your development goals, I would encourage you to have an open conversation with your manager about it. In many cases, companies will find something that will help you progress; or if not, you can be more open about your need to look outside your company and can set up a better transition plan for yourself and your team."
Even if the VP role does exist at your current company, make sure it feels right for you and what you believe in. "Once you develop the right skills and feel that you are truly ready, you make sure the VP role you're after is the right fit for you," says Dodrill. "In order to gain trust as an executive, you need to be aligned within the culture you work with, otherwise it's not going to be fun, and it should be fun! When I found myself in this position once, my mentor told me, 'If they don't get you, they don't get to have you.' That doesn't mean anyone is 'bad.' It just means there's a better place for you to be."
Think you may want to work for one of the incredible women highlighted here? Check out open roles at the companies mentioned:
- Apply for open roles at Intuit
- Apply for open roles at Autodesk
- Apply for open roles at <intent>
- Apply for open roles at Smartsheet
- Apply for open roles at CoverMyMeds
- Apply for open roles at Zapier
- Apply for open roles at CarGurus
- Apply for open roles at uShip
- Apply for open roles at StockX
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