I once worked on contract for a F500 company and was lucky enough to have the CTO as a mentor.
I ask Chris Thomas how to get promoted through his journey of going from entry-level to CTO.
First, let me introduce Chris:
- He is a Chairman of the Governance Committee and part of the Board of Directors at US Venture Inc.
- He was the VP and CTO of a $9 billion annual revenue company.
- He holds over 30 patents in
engine, transmission, hybrid/electric motor design, and control algorithms in both the United States and Europe.
- He received the Walter P. Chrysler Award for Patent Of The Year in 1995, SAE's Forest R. McFarland Award in 2002, and was names SAE Fellow in 2012.
Interview edited for length and flow.
When I look at your career trajectory, you have seen amazing growth from starting out as an entry-level engineer to leading engine programs to VP and CTO of a Fortune 500 company and now a Chairman. How did you achieve this success?
A mistake that young professionals make with promotions is that they look at their manager’s position, but that position may not be available for a long time depending on your manager’s career aspirations.
The thing you want to do instead is to take a lateral position within the company. If you're going to move into management, your skills need to be broader rather than having deep expertise in one topic.
So how does one make the lateral move?
I will share with you what my mentor taught me about taking lateral positions within a company. Look at your company’s organization chart. The organization starts with the CEO and diverges into different functions with management levels and entry-level positions.
Now imagine an Inverted-Org-Chart with you being the focal point and all the positions within the company diverging from you. All the positions at your peer level and one-manager-level up are open for you. Once you have drawn this organization chart, then narrow down a few roles based on your interest and experience. Then you want to research those roles, talk to people in those groups, and decide on a lateral move.
That is excellent advice, and you rightly point out that it’s counter-intuitive. If one wants to take the management track, does a lateral position in a specific group give you more visibility?
Yes, you want to think about how your company generates revenue. Whether it is a product company or a service company, there are specific core-competencies that make the company a market leader. For example, if your company creates products, and you can develop skills around the core-competencies of those products, then you have a high opportunity to be fast-tracked. Your visibility is not as high when you take a role in the research, finance, or marketing divisions of a product-driven company.
In addition to an employee having the right technical skills, what are the non-technical skills that separate a great employee from an average employee?
There is one critical soft skill required when trying to grow within your company. It is learning how to be an effective presenter.
My biggest fear growing up was public speaking. I still remember a time when I had to present in front of my class in school and I was so nervous. Giving presentations effectively is a skill I actively learned during my career. Fast forward to a time that I gave a keynote at the Aachen Engine Colloquium (1000 people in attendaence) and the VDI Drivetrain Forum (1400 people in attendance). Another highlight was being elected to speak on behalf of my master's class at graduation in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
So it is important to get over your fear of presenting and becoming very good at it. The way to get better at it is by going through the training offered by your company and proactively taking opportunities to present.
(Varun: There was a piece of presentation advice that Chris had shared with me around 2014 but is still etched in my memory. When planning your presentation make two columns, one column about everything you want to talk about, and the second column is everything the audience wants to hear or is of interest to them. Once you have fleshed out both columns, disregard the first column completely.)
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self -- say 3 to 7 years into your career and starting to make the first moves?
Go and get a master’s degree in business! Getting a master’s in engineering is good, but it just makes you a better engineer. Getting a master’s from a business school, makes you a better business person. You have the capability of speaking the same language as the Finance or Marketing people. You can understand the importance of cash flow, balance sheets, etc. More importantly, it will make you a better engineer! You will understand the concept of a dominant design and what it takes to overcome it. Core competencies and competitive advantage and how to create them will allow one to work on successful engineering projects.
Are there any resources you would advice young professionals to consume to improve their professional or personal lives?
Be happy and do things that make you happy. Life is too short. If you are coming to work everyday and dreading it, you are in the wrong job. Figure out what role you can do that makes you energized to come to work every day. Then you will be happy in the rest of your life too.
Thank you for your time and sharing your insights with BG readers.
BG readers, you can follow Chris Thomas on LinkedIn.