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Ask HN: What do executives do differently in their careers?
12 points by big_co 970 days ago | 11 comments
I've been out of undergrad for 2 years now, and have worked in 2 mid-sized companies, and 2 very large ones (internships/full-time).

And as I navigate the org charts of these companies, I wonder: what did the executives at these companies do differently that got them to where they are?

At first, I naturally assumed it was experience and age (or time within the company), but that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

What I have noticed is, generally, they tend to have MBAs or work on the business aspects of the company, or were executives/CEOs/Founders of other smaller companies that eventually got acquired.

I understand there is no single path or answer to this question but I'm curious to hear your opinions?

Some observations from executives I've met:

1. Take risks.

2. Be willing to take on responsibilities that you don't know how to do yet. If you're competent at the task you're working on, you're wasting your time.

3. Get to know all sorts of people throughout the organization. Not just the important people, but ordinary people working on interesting things. The important people notice that you know all the folks working on interesting things and start leaning on you to point them in the right direction.

4. Be the best in the vicinity in at least one area - the best salesman in your geographic region, the best frontend engineer on your product, the best UX designer in your department. The best has options, because everyone wants to work with them; the mediocre usually have to make do with what they're assigned to. The best usually also have management turn a blind eye when they steal time away from their main projects to work on professional development, because they're still outperforming everyone else. This becomes a virtuous cycle.

5. Volunteer for tasks that are a high priority for the organization. A lot of folks shy away from high-priority work because it's stressful; you have many powerful people breathing down your neck wanting things done yesterday. But everybody remembers who actually did that groundbreaking project, and it opens up opportunity in the future.

Some things I've noticed successful executives don't do:

1. Work 24/7. An occasional late-nighter on a critical project helps cement your reputation as a clutch player. Doing it all the time cements your reputation as a schmuck with no life.

2. Talk a lot. The best executives I know spend about 90% of their time listening and 10% talking. People who keep their mouths shut and ears open when they join an organization tend to outperform those who keep their ears shut and mouths open after about a year (it takes that long for the phonies to shake out).

3. Think of themselves in terms of one particular functional group. Being an executive is its own skillset - if you think of yourself as an engineer, or a salesperson, or a lawyer, you're artificially limiting yourself. Think of yourself as a provider of solutions - heck, doesn't patio11 give the same advice for small business owners?

4. Be cynical. It's interesting that the Gervais principle is the top comment here - there's a grain of truth to that, but if you believe it too literally you're doomed to underperforming loserhood.


I think this is correct, but for all positions rather than just executives. If you want to be a Principal Engineer or a similar position in the technical track, this would also work.

Even with my company being so large, there's a few key names I always hear dropped. Those are the "A" players, and always busy. For new projects, they're always the first people managers try to draft on to their projects. This relates to both #4 & #5, where high priority people get high priority projects which leads to further high priority things.

What I'd like to know for my own career is (in a large and bureaucratic system) if there is a repeatable way to find the high priority projects. The "A" players get tagged first, and work seems to be silo'd so you don't hear about the cool/high priority projects until after it's underway and they've already staffed out the team through people they know.

My current strategy is to work with one of those "A" people in hopes of getting projects passed on that he's too busy for. We're in similar roles, and I work well with him. I recently got a fairly high priority project because of that, but I didn't know if anyone else had any strategies.


One of my mentors is an "A" player. He genuinely looks out for me, and even goes as far as throwing high priority projects at me. At first, I took this for granted, but I'm starting to realize that the things I'm doing right now are rarely done by other folks in my position.

Find an "A"-player and make her your mentor


I think this covers a lot of it. A mixture of being good at your job, and making sure people know of you and your competence. You also need to be seen as a safe pair of hands.

Especially at the more junior levels, you also need to make yourself stand out. Competence is a given, so sometimes you do need to work longer/harder than your colleagues to get ahead.


MBA programs are sometimes sort of a tool used to justify putting people in places they wee already selected for for reasons other than experience. Say you are a board member that wants your nephew hired on as a VP despite having never had a real job. The nephew would go to business school to fend off the obvious protest from the veterans of the org who (foolishly) put in years of work.

People that are bought out are sometimes given an executive title, but often are forced out as the whole idea of buying a company is that the new management wants control.

Other people hire executive coaches, lie profusely about their experience, suck up, and do whatever it takes to get into one of these jobs. Lots of execs are like this. I dare say most. It makes no difference to them what company they are at or even what the company's business is. You can be illiterate and follow this path. lots of people who do this can just barely send an email.


This is the most comprehensive (and correct IMHO) answer Ive ever read... http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-o...


This is awesome... I am able to visualize it all. Thanks for the link


People at the "front-end" jobs (e.g. sales, marketing) tend to have the advantage here. Most tend to have wide interests, helping them bring a more balanced perspective to the table. All else being equal, education also counts.


It is their entrepreneurial mindset. Engineers tend to focus on a single tree (the engineering tree), but an executive looks at the big picture - products, market, competitions, finance, and so on.


Some people are just cut from a different cloth? You can get there, but you have to change your mindset about your mindset about many things.


I worked at a Fortune 500 company for five years. Shortly after I was hired, the department I was in got a new department head. He was relatively young. They introduced him and he gave some speech. He talked about setting goals and working his way up from the entry level job he started with.

That fits with something I read eons ago: That the 2% of people with financial goals tend to outperform the other 98% combined.


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