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Getting to the Top, by Kathryn Ullrich: A no-BS guide to career development and strategy

June 28th, 2010 · No Comments · Book Review

By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis

Kathryn UllrichGetting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success… It’s most everybody’s dream, and the title of a very useful book by Kathryn Ullrich, a high tech and consulting executive recruiter at Kathryn Ullrich & Associates located in the Silicon Valley. The book is the result of the Getting to the Top career development programs, a series of seminars and workshops that have been held in Stanford and UCLA business schools since 2006. Each of them had a functional focus: VP Marketing, VP Product Management, VP Sales, VP Bus Dev, VP Strategic Alliances, CEO, COO, General Manager, CIO, CFO.

There are numerous books related to improving one’s skills in marketing, sales, product management, and basically any of the typical corporate functional areas, and tons of books focusing on leadership. Yet, there are very few practical guides, if any, that deal with career development itself, and respond to the seemingly simple question: I am a small biz specialist in a mid-sized company today, how will I become one day the CMO of a Fortune 100? This question is at the back of the head of thousands of MBA students, yet, more often than not, they spend exorbitant tuition costs and hardly get any form of response to their simplest existential problem. You are trained. You are happy to find your first job, and after that, you are pretty much in the wild, haphazardly jumping from one position to another across various companies based on a random variety of criteria: better pay, closer to home, nice boss, trendy area, or whatever. Ten years later, a recruiter looks at your resume, and has the feeling that you have zigzaged through your professional life quite a bit. Or have you? Does what you did reflect a career strategy that you knowingly — or unknowingly — followed? It’s up to you to make it come across, though. It’s up to you to convey your own credibility.

Obviously, you can’t know it all and plan it all when you are 25 (that’s often the sign of conventional bores), but as you evolve, you start to have an idea of what you ultimately want to be at down the road. So sit down, and go through the personal assessment that will enable you to identify the guidelines that traverse your career to both leverage your past course and get better control over your future. However, this doesn’t mean that you should remain deaf to unexpected opportunities. While it’s true, as Kathryn acknowledges very early on in her book, that the vast majority of people now get their jobs through their network, and that not all hiring decisions are not based on requisite skills or experiences, it’s also true that zero sales and marketing experience will be a problem if you apply for a position as VP of Channels and Strategic Alliances or that a total of lack engineering skills are likely to make you a mediocre VP of Product Management. You’ll get on the nerves of engineers in no time!

The particular interest of Getting to the Top is that it’s really one of the very first books to lay down typical career paths in a no fancy way, with real examples of real people. Kathryn’s purpose is not to establish normative criteria and tell you Here Is What You Must Do, but to honestly provide you with typical career paths through true-to-life examples to help you plot your own course and assess where you are at any given point. Stop wondering about what it takes to become a VP: be aware of the definition of the role, check if you have the crafts usually expected in that role, if you have the tactical and strategic skills that are expected and the type of experience that will enable you to succeed. This book will save you a lot of time – as well as spare you from disappointing interviews. Yes you can be lucky and land a job above your actual qualifications, but guess what! You may also be miserable (or ridiculously unfit for the task and suffer from it). Frankly, how good of a CEO will you be if you have no strategic perspective, if you don’t give a damn about what customers think, if you hate to communicate or respond to the (sometimes petty) concerns of your direct reports? In other words – if you have no leadership. Nobody is entitled to anything, but success is within your reach if you are realistic. So look at the stars but keep your feet on the ground and read this no BS guide! Your career development is not only your responsibility, and rising to the top means understanding your goals, developing, and sticking to a career strategy, even as it evolves.

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