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
Branwyn Baughman, recruiter at Lockheed Martin, shares an exclusive take on the most important tips to keep in mind when preparing for an interview.
Take a look at the company's application process, culture, and values, as well as some top-notch tips that Branwyn outlines on how you can make your application stand out.
To learn more about Lockheed Martin and their open roles, click here.
6 Tips for Companies & 5 Tips for Individuals from Indeed's Group VP of ESG, LaFawn Davis
Earlier this month, LaFawn Davis, Indeed's Group Vice President of Environmental, Social, & Governance, joined us as part of our Diversity Reboot Summit to talk about the 'shecession' experienced by many women, and especially women of color, as a result of COVID-19.
LaFawn shared some great tips for companies and individuals looking to be part of "the great rehiring." If you're looking to find a new role, or to ensure that you help bring back diverse talent displaced by COVID, check out her advice below, and catch her complete talk here or by clicking the video above!
Q: What would your advice be to companies that are looking to step up their diverse hiring in 2021?
My advice: Good intentions are no longer good enough. Nobody wants to hear what you meant to do, wish you could have do, intended to do. Nobody wants to hear that you can't find Black Women or any other dimension of diversity. We're obviously out here.
My squad and I have a saying "Impact over intentions." So, if 2020 was the year of good diversity and inclusion intentions, let's make 2021 the year of actions and impact.
So, now that we got that out of the way. If you're looking to step up your diverse hiring. Stop and get your house in order. Because you shouldn't just want to hire a diverse workforce, you should want to grow and keep them too. So there are 5 things, ready?
1. Focus on long-term systemic change.
There's a lot of momentum — and need — for change right now. It's not just about a message of support or donating to a cause one time. Take a look at your own systems. How do you hire and grow employees? Do your succession planning, talent reviews, recruiting and other processes have built-in biases? Is equality part of your core values? Are you actively working toward change? Recognize that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Above all, hold yourself accountable for the way things are, then work to improve.
2. Take a close look at your data.
Share it internally to be transparent with employees of where you are now. When possible, share it externally to be visible and accountable (I'm happy to announce that Indeed will be releasing its own diversity data this summer). Use it as a baseline for comparison against what you hope to achieve.
3. Change behavior.
Focus on behavioral changes throughout the company with an emphasis on coaching, training, and having crucial conversations with managers. Leaders and managers set an example for the entire workforce. If employees see the behavior of managers or leaders in a negative light, a true sense of belonging is difficult to achieve.
4. Representation matters.
If leadership roles are perceived as exclusive to many members of the workforce, then a broader sense of belonging will continue to elude many employees. People in leadership roles should reflect the diversity of a company's workforce. Observing someone "like me" in a leadership role helps attract and retain talent and motivates workers to pursue roles with greater responsibility.
5. Create Policies And Procedures Reflective Of The Entire Workforce.
As you work through new or existing policies and procedures, be aware of barriers experienced by different populations. Take, for example, the case of caregivers. More scheduling flexibility for calls can go a long way for employees who share their home workspace with others and must tend to family responsibilities while working remotely.
Q: Do you have advice for individuals that are looking for new career opportunities, especially women of color who might have lost their previous jobs during the pandemic?
Adaptability has always been an important part of an individual's career progression - even before COVID-19, it is especially important now.
It is important to show a potential new employer how your abilities adapt to a new role or a new industry. Focus on skills more than just experiences because skills can be applied in so many different ways. So… I'll give you 6 things for this one.
1. Perform a professional audit. Taking some time to understand your qualities, qualifications and values can help focus your career transition and narrow down your career path options if you haven't already. Doing so can also help you understand how you might position yourself during the job search.
2. Identify your hard and soft skills. Soft skills are often the most transferable, so identifying them early can help you understand the ways you might bring value to a new role or industry. Taking inventory of your hard skills will help you identify if there are certain industries that might be easier to transition into.
3. Highlight your biggest career wins. Communicating the impact you've made throughout your career can help employers quickly understand the value you'll bring to their organization, even if you come from another role or industry.
4. Utilize online job search to your advantage. Pay close attention to the requirements and duties of jobs so you can evaluate whether the career would align with your skills, interests and values.
5. You just need to meet "most" of the qualifications. Try to focus on positions for which you meet at least 60% of the qualifications with your transferable skills. Meeting 60% of the qualifications isn't a hard rule, but it's a good general guideline to help you determine whether it's worth applying for.
6. Get a sense of the company. Before interviews, do some research to learn how inclusive a company is. Peruse the organization's core values, its social media accounts, and any recent statements in support of marginalized groups. Pay attention to the interviewers themselves. Is the panel diverse or are you likely to be an early "diversity hire"? If the interviewers seem to be emphasizing "cultural fit," ask what that means. Basically, be an active participant in the hiring process. You are also interviewing the company, as much as they are interviewing you.
Stephanie Acker, director of inside sales at Commvault, gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the company's application process, culture, and values, as well as her own career journey.
To kick things off, Stephanie mentioned the three things that make a great inside sales professional: an independent work ethic, the ability to learn and execute on their own, and an awareness of what keeps them motivated.
Over her 12-year career at Commvault, Stephanie's greatest motivation has been helping customers to find solutions and catapult them to success. In both her past role as a sales representative and her current director position, Stephanie remains committed to ensuring her team understands what motivates them to sell and setting them up for success.
The biggest surprise during her career at Commvault was becoming the director of inside sales. Stephanie shared that she loves working for a company that listens to new ideas, thinks outside of the box, and tries new things.
Don't miss her take on what moves a candidate forward in the interview process! For example, Stephanie loves when the interviewee gets into "the zone"—showing their selling technique. She also shares her favorite interview questions.
As Stephanie says, stop thinking and apply today!
To learn more about Commvault and their open roles, click here.
When you think about strong female leadership, what comes to mind? For Tatiana L., a global client partner in Miami, it's about more than having an executive seat, being a mother, or making dreams come true. "Good leadership is about being open, flexible, and able to understand different perspectives," she says. "It's about fostering collaboration, bringing people together, and empowering them to connect."
Tatiana L. is a global client partner based in Miami.
Tatiana is part of the Women@ Facebook Resource Group and helped plan Women's Leadership Day, an annual global community summit. While the highly-anticipated event takes place over just one day, its massive impact is felt over the course of the entire year.
Amy W. is an operations lead based in London.
"Women's Leadership Day is more than an event. It's energy, and it's a movement," Amy W., an operations lead in London, says. "Moments like this can completely change the perception of women in technology."
From choosing the content and programming for the event to making it accessible for women around the globe, we went behind the scenes with seven members of the Women@ Facebook Resource Group to learn more about how women are empowered—and are empowering one another— in their career journeys at the Facebook company.
Behind the scenes with Women@
Amanda M., an internal recruiting manager based in Singapore, speaking onstage at 2019 Women@ Leadership Day in APAC.
"I've always been passionate about empowering women, but I didn't know how I could do it at work. My first Women@ experience changed how I felt at Facebook," Amanda M., an internal recruiting manager in Singapore, remembers. "From then on, I wanted to help other women feel heard, valued, and confident."
Planning the global event, which brings together women from more than 20 countries, calls for close collaboration across multiple teams, regions, and timezones. Members of Women@ also partner with other Facebook Resource Groups, such as the Pride@ Resource Group, Latin@ Facebook Resource Group, Desis@ Facebook Resource Group and Black@ Resource Group, to ensure all women at Facebook are represented and feel included.
Vivian V. is a program manager based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"Across regions and communities, we each bring unique differences and powerful stories. When one of us moves forward, we have the opportunity to bring all of us forward," Vivian V., a program manager in the San Francisco Bay Area explains. "While planning the summit, we meet weekly to talk about what women in different regions are experiencing. From the event theme and content to planning speaker sessions and fine-tuning details, we each have items to own. Two months before the summit, we meet daily to share updates and make sure nothing slips through the cracks."
"Just like me, women in APAC look forward to Women's Leadership Day all year long," Amanda says. Planning something that's deeply meaningful to so many people can feel like a lot of pressure, but at the same time, it's uplifting. I appreciate that we have the opportunity to talk about our individual and shared challenges, and we map out ways we can build community while empowering leadership for women across the globe."
Empowering confidence, equality, and leadership through storytelling
Paris Z., a vertical strategy lead in Singapore, and Amanda M. collaborate with women across the globe to plan Women@ programming and events.
Women's Leadership Day encourages women to talk about challenges like experiencing imposter syndrome, breaking through barriers, and how to manage work/life flexibility. "Storytelling is a huge part of the event," Paris Z., a vertical strategy lead in Singapore, explains.
Vivian says, "I've been at Facebook for nearly two years and help plan these events, and honestly, I never really understood imposter syndrome before I got here. Working with the Women@ community and hearing from our speakers—who are talented, brilliant superstars—I've seen firsthand how it affects them too."
Michelle C. is a client partner based in London.
Michelle C., a client partner in London, says that the summit's speaker sessions, which feature people from inside and outside of Facebook, are a highlight of every event. "We had a speaker from Tel Aviv who talked about the importance of balance in her personal life and how she co-parents with her husband. She shared specific things she's done, like adding her husband to the WhatsApp chat groups for mothers she's in and reminding her daughter's school that her husband is also available when their child feels sick. Her message was that we'll never be equal in the workplace until we're equal at home, and it really struck a chord."
Paris says that in APAC, Eva Chen's talk about facing challenges amidst the coronavirus pandemic and how she's raising her daughter was a top-rated session because it was so relatable. "From talking about her daughter's love for dinosaurs—a "boy" thing—and raising kids to fully be themselves to opening up about what it was like to grow up with immigrant parents from China and Vietnam, Eva inspired us with her authenticity and openness. Her struggle to feel supported while working in fashion and tech, rather than medicine, is something a lot of people in APAC understand."
"Every woman has a unique story," Michelle says. "Hearing from others is inspiring, validating, and truly eye-opening. It reminds us that we're not alone."
A memorable and lasting impact
It's no surprise that with the tremendous amount of planning and careful consideration that goes into the summit, its full impact is impossible to measure.
"It meant so much to me when people shared such positive feedback about Women's Leadership Day," Paris says. "We heard that some attendees felt inspired for days and weeks."
Kira G. is an agency partner based in Berlin.
Kira G., an agency partner in Berlin, has witnessed how the summit's programming can inspire action, even helping people push past a career plateau. "We might reach a point in our careers when we think, "I can't do this anymore, I'm not moving forward'," she says. "Women's Leadership Day gives us fresh perspectives, shows us new approaches, and starts important conversations. This can unlock new paths for growth and help us move forward."
Impact is felt in other Facebook groups, communities, and across teams too, inspiring interest and allyship. Amanda explains, "I felt so proud when a male VP from the Sales team came to us after hearing about what people talked about at Women's Leadership Day. He told us he wanted to learn more because it's everyone's responsibility to be an ally."
Empowering the community throughout the year
While Amanda describes Women's Leadership Day as a "bump in energy and inspiration" and "an injection of adrenaline", Vivian says that the real magic is what happens afterwards—and takes place all year long.
"When we think about Women's Leadership Day, our focus is on making sure that the powerful messages we hear and experience serve us throughout the entire year. We ask ourselves questions like, "How can we sprinkle these themes into our programming throughout the month or quarter? How do these ideas fit with our Women@ initiatives?" Going through something awesome together is just the beginning. Our work takes place year-round and we're constantly building on it to do more."
Paris agrees: "There's no shortage of amazing stories from our Women@ community throughout the year. Women's Leadership Day is just one channel for those stories, and I love how it stays top of mind with people and empowers them to do more good. When we come together, we can do anything we dream of."
"We're building a sisterhood and a community," Tatiana beams. "It feels so good to know there's always someone there to support you."
Learn more about Facebook's Employee Resource Groups, including Women@ here.