What Does It Take to Move From Director to VP?

From a director to a VP

If you assume that the move from a Director role to that of a VP is a natural step up the career ladder, think again. Advancement from a managerial role to that of a Director is a huge leap in terms of responsibilities and mindset, but to successfully secure a VP position requires a very particular skill set, personality, and approach that not everyone possesses. 

Sometimes referred to as the rather nebulous “executive presence” this bundle of VP attributes is not something you can pull out of your hat at an interview. A successful VP candidate demonstrates their suitability for the role throughout their career journey.

So, let’s take a look at exactly how a VP differs from a Director, and how you can be ready for action when you find a position vacancy that speaks to you.

Variation Between Companies

A quick disclaimer: Organizational structures differ, as do the roles that come with a job title. A director or VP in one company may not have the same role and responsibilities as a lateral role in another business. Likewise, not all directors and VPs are cookie-cutter professionals with the same career path.

As a result, the information has a certain degree of generalization and you should adapt it to reflect the specific role you are considering.

So, that said, let’s take a look at Director and VP roles and the attributes required to be successful in each.

How Directors and VPs Differ

The Typical Director

Directors manage an area of an organization, which is usually defined by a specific business function. They will have several department heads or managers reporting to them, although the Director is not expected to micro-manage their immediate team. Instead, the Director secures the business’ top priorities, as they apply to their team, and ensures all the necessary resources are available.

The managers oversee the actual work and receive detailed information about what is going on in their team. The director oversees the managers, receives summaries of what is going on in each team, and will make any major changes to operational procedures.

A successful Director knows how to:

  • Juggle multiple priorities, allocating their department’s budget and resources for maximum effect.
  • Motivate their managers and foster a top-down positive and productive atmosphere.
  • Take the business goals formulated by their VP and translate those goals into actionable objectives for their team.
  • Communicate appropriately with their management team, their VP, and the executive management team, and, on occasion, the employees in their departments.

The Typical VP

A VP will have several directors reporting to them, not all of whom will have the same business functions and objectives. As a result, a VP knows how to prioritize the conflicting demands that arise from disparate departments. Directors will report to a VP with a high-level summary of what is happening in their department and how that contributes to meeting the goals of the business.

A successful VP knows how to:

  • Translate the overall direction of the business into goals that are relevant for each department.
  • Prioritize multiple projects to ensure each of their directors has the appropriate share of resources to meet their department’s priorities.
  • Communicate with calm confidence and inspire confidence in those above and below them in the business hierarchy.
  • Find a common purpose for their team of directors so they work together and not at odds with each other.
  • Interact with business partners and the public, representing the business with an air of confidence and professionalism.
  • Set goals at the management level. They should not get pulled into settling problems at the functional level.
  • Make business decisions objectively and with intent.
  • Be compelling, gain the trust of those under and above them, and lead by example.

How Can You Advance to VP?

Being a stand-out VP candidate begins years before you even apply for a VP role. You need a demonstrable history as a Director who is able to manage conflicting priorities while staying calm, objective, and ethical. In addition, you will need exemplary communication skills and that elusive “executive presence” that inspires faith and trust in those around you.

If you are applying within your existing organization, the interview team will ask questions such as, “Will people be happy working under this candidate? Is this the person who will inspire confidence in their team and galvanize them into action? Can we trust this person to represent the company to our partners and the public?”

To some degree, they will already know the answers because you will have demonstrated the attributes of a VP on your way up the ladder.

An organization where you haven’t previously worked will be asking the same kinds of questions. However, you will not have the advantage of an existing relationship. As an outside candidate, you’ll need to prove your skills and loyalty.

The Interview Process

When you apply for a VP role you can expect to go through several rounds of interviews. Employers will be most concerned about identifying soft skills that make or break a successful VP.

To demonstrate your qualifications, prepare examples of how you:

  • Have brought together teams with conflicting priorities and facilitated their working together towards a common goal.
  • Shared your organization’s mission in such a way that staff at multiple levels became invested. 
  • Made tough decisions with confidence, objectivity, and decisiveness, even when those decisions went against your best interests.
  • Build rapport, bring people along with you, and set the tone for company culture.

Examples of these soft skills will help the interviewers distinguish between a weak candidate and someone who can become a trustworthy, dignified executive who gets things done.

Ready to take the leap? Get one-on-one interview prep with an executive coach!


About the Author

Patti Barnes has spent much of her career working with management systems, first in the creation and implementation of management systems and later as an auditor against international standards. After a sidestep into the economic evaluation of environmental resources, and the psychology of social media, she became a consultant to both private industries and governments. Patti now spends her time between advisory roles, writing about the ways in which professionals can best position themselves for a successful career in today's complex and connected world.