Taking the Helm on your Career
To get to your destination, make a plan.
Safy Fishov has navigated a rare career path for himself, from engineer and individual contributor to the highest ranks of public company executives as a Vice President of Sales for Xilinx, a $32B supplier of programmable logic devices. Sales is not a natural place to excel for an engineer, yet Safy is creating the industry’s best sales organization. And for him, “best” means a precise measure to surpass.
He and I have regular conversations on strategy, framing, readings and hurdles in management and leadership. He is not only accomplished, but also clear-headed, intentional and thoughtful. I come away from our talks thinking we ought to be podcasting, so I’m hosting a post today for him to share his thinking and the methodologies he’s used to curate his career. I hope you will find it as enjoyable and actionable as I have.
Many of you are founders, a path you chose to craft your own reality from scratch and not just play your part in an existing, large organization. Nevertheless, most future scenarios for you will involve being part of a large organization, hopefully your own once it’s evolved into something massive. The skills Safy teaches will not only come in useful then, but will help you to understand the initiative and talent you should expect from your own stellar hires now.
Career planning is like anything else you work for in life. If you don’t know what you want, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get it. And thinking about what you want is not the same thing as having a plan to get there. As one of my mentors told me, “If you don’t know what you have to get done by Friday, you don’t have a plan.”
You need a plan, and it needs to be written down. One of the most important rules I’ve learned is that if the plan isn’t written down it doesn’t exist.
Planning is key for any successful project, and your career plan should be no different. Every successful career plan has three elements. Start with a clear career objective—whether it’s your next promotion, a move to vice president, or to become a first-time people manager. Add milestones that move you towards your goal (I typically have a time horizon of 3-6 months between milestones). Then create a list of actions to move you forward from milestone to milestone.
The best way to put your plan in place is to align it with the direction your manager, company, and industry are heading.
Target a role at least one level up from where you are now. Climbing in an organization is like climbing a mountain trail. At the start you probably can’t see much other than what’s in front of you. At this stage, it’s important to get aligned with your manager and just start making progress.
And the best way to get aligned with your direct manager is to understand her top three priorities. Note that this is different from her top three priorities for you. Those you should already know. But she has her own deliverables to her boss and to her peers in the organization. Understanding the organization’s goals from where she’s sitting, and how your goals fit into the larger goals of the organization, is a great way to align your plan with hers. It’s also a good way to contribute at a level above most of your peers, which is important if you’re looking for a promotion. If you can help her succeed at her goals, she’s likely to help you as well.
It’s also a good idea to get aligned not just with your own leader, but with the other leaders in the organization who will have an impact on your career. Over the years I made it a point to meet regularly with our CEO and other executives to talk about what I’m working on. I want to understand their priorities and how I can contribute to their progress towards their goals. I also schedule monthly or bi-weekly meetings with other leaders on the CEO’s staff so that I have a well-rounded view of the company’s priorities. Armed with that information, I am able to set myself up to contribute to things that will help the company and be visible to executive leaders. These goals all go into my plan for the coming months.
Sometimes an opportunity will come your way to do something different and you have to decide whether it aligns with your goals. When I was working at a startup, I was asked to move to France to start our business in Europe, mainly driving new sales. I had no real experience in sales, but knew I wanted to transition from engineering to the business side of the company. When I took the jump, I realized I was missing some key skills that I needed to start working on right away. The great part was that it forced me to get real with myself about what I needed to do in order to achieve my goals. If you can find a forcing function like that, make use of it to push yourself further, faster. But get ready for a bumpy ride, it’s not called a forcing function for nothing!
Make sure you’re checking your blind spots regularly. Blind spots are shortcomings, issues or challenges that you are not aware of that will prevent you from making progress in your career. You have to be honest with yourself and own fixing them. Nobody is going to fix them for you. This means soliciting and taking feedback from people you work with, writing it down, and integrating that feedback into your plan.
When I was working to get promoted to vice president, a new manager who had just joined the company told me that our CFO perceived some shortcomings in me that would prevent me from getting that VP promotion. I had no idea, but was so thankful that he told me. There was no way I could get promoted without the CFO being on board. I then worked to get aligned with the CFO so he could see the value I was bringing to the company, eventually collaborating with him on a project to analyze the ROI on some new products. He became my ally when I needed him and, with his support, I got that VP promotion.
Finally, keep in mind that you’re not the first person to try to turbo-charge their career, and you don’t have enough time to learn everything you need by trial and error. Read some books on career planning (Your First 100 Days in a New Executive Job), leadership (Colin Powell’s It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership), extreme ownership (Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win) and communication (Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time). Books are a shortcut to success, but be sure to understand the difference between knowing the path and walking the path. Hold yourself accountable for implementing what you’ve read by writing it into your plan.
My last piece of advice is to have fun! This is your life and your plan. You’re at the helm. To make it work, make it fun!
Safy Fishov is Vice President of Sales for North America, EMEA, and India at Xilinx. He has built and scaled sales teams in Asia, Europe and the US, and now devotes himself to maximizing team performance, and driving cultural change and personal growth across an international, multicultural team. He enjoys training for triathlons (even occasionally participating in them) and spending time with his wife and young son.
Marc Meyer is a Silicon Valley technologist, founder (6 startups, 4 exits, 1 IPO), engineer, executive, investor, advisor, teacher and coach. He has invested in and advised over 140 companies. He advises and works with accelerators and funds including Alchemist, 500 Startups, HBS Alumni Angels and Berkeley SkyDeck, where he chairs the Advisor Committee. He has an Executive Coaching practice helping leaders navigate towards their greatest potential.