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Director Level, what it takes to make it to this level

Director Level

What direction is your career heading?

The Director Level title

I recently received the following email from a reader who was looking for advice on what steps they could take get to Director level / VP level. I thought this was a great question and worth sharing.

Mr. Nasty,

I have been in the workforce for about 8 years working for a couple of different companies. I have been working for a fairly large company with a good brand and am thinking about leaving for greener pastures.  My goal is to become a Director level or VP level within the next 3-5 years, and ultimately a VP. I am not seeing it happen at this company. I feel like working at a Start-Up will give me a lot more opportunity to grow with a company and expand my skill set in a compressed amount of time. What advice do you have for me as I begin my job search?

Great question and thanks for writing in!

I share my feelings with start-ups here. Based on personal experience, I would not be where I am without my corporate experience, but I received 10X more opportunity when working in a growing start-up. 

Instead of answering the question “What steps can I take”? I thought it might be helpful to talk about what I look for when hiring or considering a candidate for a Director level promotion. Getting to Director level and getting to VP are two different roles. This will differ from company to company, but in my opinion, Directors are thinking strategically but are more tactical than strategic. VP’s are more strategic than tactical and not very worried about the tactical day-to-day stuff. When I think of a VP, I think of someone who is managing an entire discipline for longer-term goals. When I think of a Director, I think of an individual who manages 1 or maybe 2 subsets within a discipline.

For small to medium-sized companies, let’s say we have a VP of Sales. The VP of Sales has the following direct reports: Director of Outside Sales, Director of Inbound Sales, and Director of Sales Operations. Anyone of these directors could be an individual contributor OR, they could be leading a team.  

This is my personal opinion, but Directors and VP’s, have the ability (or show the potential) to do the following:

  • Communicate effectively two levels above their current title. If you are a VP, you can effectively communicate with SVP’s and C-level exec’s. This doesn’t mean small talk in the elevator or over beers.  The ability to deliver confidence that you can, and will make a difference to the bottom line is paramount.  VP’s can effectively pitch strategic initiatives and convince senior peers to buy into new programs and ideas. Everyone has ideas, but Directors and VP’s can move ideas from proposal to funding, and through successful execution.
  • VP’s have breadth and depth of experience.  If you are in marketing, you don’t just have experience in brand marketing, you have experience in brand, social, PR, and content marketing.  You won’t be an expert in all of the marketing categories, but you will be able to make a solid business decision when presented the facts. No company should expect you to be an expert in all of the sub-disciplines because you will be surrounding yourself with colleagues who DO have specific depth. The thought is that at this level VP’s will be managing a larger group and that group is going to be diversified in its talent and responsibility. When you are a manager or a director, you are generally responsible for a number of direct reports who are all working with the same sub-discipline that you do. When you are responsible for 15- 20 people as a VP, that group will be composed of different sub-disciplines and the leader of this group needs to understand and have experience with these different skill sets.
  • A VP has experience managing multiple sub-disciplines to specific company goals. Depending on the size of the company, a Director is usually on the tactical side of the department implementing the Vice President’s strategy for the entire department.  A VP will think of the other departments as the entire company works towards the goal. 
  • At the Director level, we should be able to represent our company to the outside with similarly titled customers and vendors?  A VP will usually work with VP peers outside of the company. This means knowing the company’s business, presenting yourself in a way that is representative of your peers, and being able to entertain and host these customers.
  • A VP will have earned the respect of not just their team but across the enterprise. VP’s will inspire not just their individual teams but inspire thinking across the enterprise. VP’s will have credibility across the enterprise. Think about the all company meeting where all of the heads of the departments got up on stage and gave their quarterly updates.  If you are a Sales VP, you have the respect of not just Sales and Marketing but of the technology and operational departments as well. You probably don’t write code, but you understand technology and leverage all the tools for your company. If you are the VP of Technology, you understand the trials and tribulations of the sales and marketing departments and these departments have confidence in you to build the product.

If I were to give advice to someone wanting to take their career to the director level of leadership, I would recommend a few things:

  • Meet with other VP’s on a regular basis.  AKA, find mentors or advisors that are at least a level Sr. to the Director level.
  • Update your manager about your long-term goals.  If you do not let them know where you want to go, they won’t be able to help you get there.
  • Act, communicate and dress for the position you are gunning for. If you want to be at the Director level, you will need to look, act, and sound like a Director.  If others don’t see you working at the Director level, it won’t happen.  Not on an occasional basis, but day in and day out.  Consistency is the name of the game.
  • #PMA Positive Mental Attitude.  VP’s will overcome any and all problems; they don’t add fuel to the fire.

Hopefully, this provides you some insight into how I think about both roles.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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PS.  I wouldn’t be doing you right if I didn’t say the following:

This is a hard observation and I don’t know all the facts.  If you don’t see yourself getting to Director at this company, it will be tough to land a similar title at a similar sized company. Directors overcome obstacles no matter how complicated. Regardless of the company politics one thing that VP’s have figured out is how to maneuver within ANY environment, not just their own. Working in a larger company is just a matter of scale. VP’s are hired to work with counterparts from other company’s including customers, partners, vendors, etc.  They are paid to not only solve problems but keep the company out of them. Examine how you are working with your current company. There are no excuses for Director of VP. Low performing employees, politics, and tough executive teams will not be an excuse for a Director. If you are NOT making progress, we should re-evaluate what we are doing at the current company.