Engineer exponential growth (10 steps to senior leadership roles)

Conversations For Career Transformation

Mounica Veggalam | 14-07-2024

Read time: 10 mins | Read it online here

Hey Reader!

One of the core ideas that I talk about a lot in my writing and coaching is Non-Linear Growth.

Because most managers in tech think they’re underappreciated…

  • They just can’t move their reports up to their potential, which could show their leadership capability.
  • Their bosses don’t already hand them a bigger scope of work, which would be a sign of true recognition of their potential.
  • They’re stretched so thin by the day-to-day execution and OKRs, which limits their capacity to expand beyond their current scope (and leads to self-underappreciation).

And so on.

But the truth is, they are simply stuck in linear growth.

This week I want to talk about a different paradigm, Non-Linear Growth and give you 10 easy, actionable steps to engineer such growth in your career.

Whenever I try to explain Non-Linear Growth to someone, one of the questions I often get asked is, “OK, that sounds awesome— but what is it?”

So, I want to first make a humble attempt to put non-linear growth into words and then give you some steps to make that shift.

I’ve been working on today’s issue for the past 2 weeks, and here I am with it just before the holidays. (Warning: it is longer than my usual letters, read it online here if the email is truncated). As you wind down for the year, I invite you to think about how to step into a non-linear growth trajectory in 2023.


Let’s jump in!

There are only 2 ways to grow in your career:

The first is linear growth.

Keep doing your work well, improve your skills, and try to get “better” with every performance review.

Result: You slowly climb up the ladder on your company’s standard timeline. You keep getting busier with more hours to work and a messed up personal life. OR you one day declare “no more” and resign to your current position (practicing “gratitude” for what life has given you).

Linear growth is incremental improvement.

The second is non-linear growth.

Make leaps based on your vision, and focus entirely on transforming yourself and your leadership capacity. It’s no marginal improvement.

Result: You create a world that you want to live and grow in rather than what your company system sets up for you. You get the recognition, title, a healthy personal life, and the fulfillment of a well-done job. Confidence and gratitude come as by-products.

Non-Linear growth is exponential and out of the predictable.

How is this even possible?

Non-linear growth happens…

  • When you focus on developing exponential thought.
  • When you shed your beliefs that you have to be a mercenary to get the title.
  • When you turn your moments of agitation into moments of transformation and growth.
  • When you stand for a possibility and vision without knowing how it will happen.
  • When you are on a mission to develop leadership in your people and use that to fuel your growth.
  • When you hold your personality conditioned by the past lightly and zoom in on who you want to BE from this moment.

This is a profound shift— a shift where you stop focusing on WHAT you’re doing and think about WHO you’re being. Your score on that Myers Briggs test and the latest productivity strategies will not contribute an iota to making this shift.

They may even put you in a net-negative.

The scaling of your career is limited to your thinking. Better start fostering exponential thought if you want “progress.”

For every human on this planet, our thinking results from our past conditioning.

And that limited thinking limits our present environment.

This is not some new-age woo-woo. Suppose you identify yourself as an introverted, brilliant, and helpful person. In that case, you value these qualities subconsciously so much that you surround yourself with similar people. Now, they may not be as introverted, brilliant, or helpful as you. They might even complement you in these aspects. But the core values match so much that you think and behave similarly. You cannot tolerate it any other way.

The problem is that our personality is limited by our beliefs.

These beliefs are our conclusions about our environment. They stem from our social fears that limited our expansion in favor of survival i.e, acceptance by our family and peers.

These beliefs and fears shape our actions (and our inactions).

You jump in to ease the discomfort of your reports or your manager because you believe one must be as helpful as one can be and you’re afraid of the pain that you’re capable of causing by not being helpful

Such actions then shape your environment.

Because you’ve always jumped in to help your reports, they expect you to do that. People who don’t like this leave, and you retain people who love your advice and guidance. Result? A team of followers and a low level of leadership. (See how helping people is not a virtue?)

The point is to recognize how even the most virtuous views can limit your progress.

If you want to grow to the senior ranks, prime your mind to start “thinking about your thinking.”

Why do you do what you do? What do you believe about what you do? How is that getting in the way of your vision for yourself and your career?

I call this reflective thinking.

Incapability for this reflective thinking is the most crucial gap to cover when you want to grow.

Reflective thinking can:

  • Get you out of the linear iteration of execution
  • Boost your creativity to think strategically
  • Expand your capacity to hold space for people who can bring that strategy to physical reality

Said differently, reflective thinking expands your leadership to the likes of an executive.

There are 3 essential aspects for this to happen: Powerful Discpline, Hard Conversations and Tough Decisions.

How do you put these aspects into action?

Here are the 10 steps:

Step 1: Recognize the ‘Why’ behind your goal

Getting clear on ‘WHY’ you want this career growth is the first step. You probably don’t want a rat race, where once you accomplish the goal, the high lasts for precisely 3 seconds before you start feeling empty again. You must CHOOSE your ‘why,’ not default to a subconscious one.

  • Do you want this career growth for a sense of recognition?
  • Do you want to make an impact on the world?
  • Do you want to find what you’re capable of?
  • Do you want more freedom or power to make decisions?

When you discover the ‘why’ behind your goal, your intrinsic motivation kicks in, and you’ll find creative ideas to grow quickly. You’ll find your role in your company, industry, and the world.

So, CHOOSE your ‘why.’ (not be a slave to it)

Step 2: Set time for strategic thinking and personal well-being

Connecting ideas and developing new insights is $10,000/hr work. It’s your differentiator. What’s the difference between a Sr.Manager who gets promoted in 3 years vs. 10 years? Their ability to lead strategic initiatives that make money for their company. But managerial tasks and day-to-day low-leverage work take your mental space from developing this thinking.

If you’re constantly in survival and fire-fighting mode, you’re bound to miss opportunities right in front of your eyes.

Optimize your calendar for mental presence and energy. Set deep work hours & self-care practices. Guard them with your life.

Step 3: Start writing to be read

Writing clarifies thinking. And going public with your ideas (no matter how half-baked they are) is the simplest 10x you can do for engineering exponential moments. When I started to write publicly on LinkedIn, just in a few months, opportunities came knocking on my doorstep. Building your digital intellectual capital is the new resume.

Remember those deep work hours you set above?

Start publishing your ideas, vision, strategy, and personal stories to your reports, peers, or maybe even in public (LinkedIn, Twitter).

Step 4: Challenge how you relate to people

You are bound in linear progression when you interact with the same kind of people you like. Your boxes limit you. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. If you want to create new results for your career (a.k.a executive promotions), you have to create a new world consisting of new people and/or new relationships with existing people.

The first step is to recognize your own abrasive posturing and empathetic collapsing.

Your judgment of others limits the extent of your relationships and, thereby, your career prospects. Start relating to humans for genuine connection.

Examine how you judge others. That’s where your blind spots lie.

Step 5: Ask your manager to coach you high-flame

Your blind spots are revealed to you partially when you ask for feedback. But most of the time, asking for feedback becomes just a checkbox in your to-do list (and a nice feeling that you’re open to it). Feedback is not even half the game. You must invest time and energy to create meaningful change to address those blind spots.

It’s worth noting that if you could have changed on your own, you would have already (and already be on your way to the promotions).

So, don’t just ask for feedback. Note down your conflicts, frustrations, and disappointments. Your blind spots lie in moments of agitation. They are gifts for growth disguised as pain. Put them on the table with your manager and ask for coaching.

(If you can’t approach your boss, consider hiring a coach)

Step 6: Start coaching your reports high-flame

Your progress to senior ranks is determined by how well you can turn any follower into a leader. This does not come easy. What’s easy is telling people what to do in tricky situations and leaving their growth to company trainings and annual reviews.

As you get coached on your moments of agitation (Step #5), coach your reports on theirs.

Don’t settle into social niceties or look to be known as a ‘good’ manager. Model leadership to them. Develop their leadership.

Remember the 4 rules for challenging your reports:

  1. Give Agency, Not Advice
  2. Set Commitment Containers, Not Expectations
  3. Give In-the-moment Feedback, Not Annual Reviews
  4. Lead from inner power, not hierarchy

Step 7: Reduce your procrastination to hard conversations and tough decisions

We all know immense potential lies in high-stakes conversations and tough decisions. But we put it off when it comes to addressing that underperforming employee or challenging a snarky report. We don’t want to come across as selfish, arrogant, or pushy in our influence conversations with peers.

This discomfort and procrastination hold you back from the next level of leadership.

You’ll ease into hard conversations as you start receiving and giving coaching. Practice the art of closing open loops with everyone- Peers, Mentors, Managers, and Reports.

Step 8: Come up with a research project and reach out to people to collaborate

This is one of the most important step to immediately kick off exponential opportunities.

Everybody knows a strong network is the way to get lucky in your career. But, how do you build one? Especially when the ones you want to be talking to are at the exec level, don’t have time for you, and probably don’t know you exist. What do you even say to these people?

Steal this idea from Rich Litvin, a well-known executive coach.

  1. Come up with a research project or a collaboration project.
  2. Make a list of 20 people to reach out to. Ask for ideas, suggestions and collaboration.
  3. Send a short email asking for a chat. Explain your goal and the potential of the project.

3 rules for a research project:

  • You’re genuinely interested in it
  • Brings huge value to people who partner with you on it
  • Aligns with your mission and role in your company/org/industry

Here are some prompts to think about research projects:

  • Could you lead a DEI initiative?
  • What is your perspective on high-performing teams?
  • What do you want to learn about in the next 2 years?
  • What are success rules for ICs or EMs (where you’ve been)?
  • What is your vision for missing gaps in your company’s offerings?
  • What are your mental models for success in the tech industry?

Be open to what happens. Some may never reply. Some would ask for a proposal. Some would schedule you a month out. Some would agree to sponsor you.

Remember, any response (or lack thereof) is a data point.

Step 9: Close internal open loops every single day

Leadership is full of addressing conflicts, upstream battles, and driving consensus. We hold so much in our minds that there is no scope for creativity and innovation. Your mental presence is your most valuable asset. You must close the background narratives in your head for any new strategic ideas to come out of you.

This phrase from David Allen, “Mind like water,” sums it up.

Set aside time for reflection. Use these 3 questions to get the dirty water out of the pipes and pivot your mindset:

  1. What emotions am I feeling?
  2. What is my responsibility in this situation?
  3. What can I create given this situation?

This practice helps you get out of the ‘life is taking over me’ mindset (aka, victim mindset) to an empowered state of being.

Step 10: Review and start from step 1.

The most crucial thing in this process is to learn what’s not working and make micro-pivots. Everything will change when you start getting coached, coaching your reports, making tough decisions, sharing your ideas, and collaborating on your research project— Your why will change, your goals will change and new opportunities are bound to pop up.

Then, how do you make decisions to have fun and contentment throughout this process?

Ask this simple question: Are you operating from fear or from choice?

Some signs of fear-based actions:

  • You think you have ‘no other option’ or this is the best option
  • I ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘necessarily’ do this, otherwise…
  • You find yourself mentally exhausted rather than energized by your work
  • You blame others. It’s because you’re afraid of how you need to change to not cause the behavior

When you observe your thoughts getting into these loops, it’s time to go back to Step #1 and revise your ‘Why.’

Remember, it’s a long game. But an exponential one. And your internal transformation is the only thing that will open you up to endless possibilities, not quick-fix strategies.

Hope that was helpful (bookmark this link to read later).

And as always, let me know what you agree with, disagree with or what’s not clear. I’d love to hear from you.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday time! I’ll be back in 2023 with more deep dives and new projects.

See you next year!


PS: whenever you’re ready, here are the ways I can help you (book for next year):

Mounica Veggalam

Hey, there! I talk about non-linear growth strategies and leadership development for tech leaders. Get mindset deep dives to break through into senior leadership roles.

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