If only pundits clearly could plot one clear path from the mail-room to the executive suite! You will change careers two or three times between college graduation and retirement; and, as you move from one position to the next, you must carve out your own path from "associate" to CEO.
Management careers are as unique as each person in a management position. In big manufacturing companies, managers typically came from the production lines, because they knew the business from the ground up and the people from the inside-out. In the post-modern age, though, high-tech manufacturing puts individual engineers in charge of whole processes, and managers mostly track productivity and profits. In service industries, management careers resembled those among baseball managers: the same experienced, talented people rotated through the league until their teams matched their temperaments and they brought home big trophies. Now, "good numbers" seem to drive management careers. In other words, the candidate with the most impressive record of growing a business rises to the next step on the ziggurat.
No mandates. Just questions.
Therefore, instead of direct instruction, "Do this, and then do that", a skilled mentor today tasks her protege with fundamental questions. First, ask and answer, "What distinguishes me from all of my colleagues?" Then, second, "How can I parlay my distinction into a successful management career?"
Beware, however, as the questions come with cautions and caveats. Abstract answers will not effectively guide your progress from one level to the next. Anyone who volunteers, "I'm a people person!" goes directly to the back of the line. Do you have empathy, compassion, motivational skill, exceptional team-building qualities? How do you know? The gatekeepers at each stage will demand details and proof; do you have pictures and spreadsheets? Just as importantly, you must have the ability to match your distinctive attributes with specific management functions. If you are exceptionally articulate, what does your command of language empower you to do for the company? If you can find square roots without the benefit of calculator, pen, or paper, what will your mathematical skill contribute to the company's numbers?
No one gets there alone.
As you begin your career, you may proclaim your awesome qualities and print them on t-shirts; until one of the gatekeepers sees your distinction in your performance, you remain just a kid with a self-promotional t-shirt. At each step of your climb to the top, you will need a mentor, an ally, a friend, and a friendly rival--four different people, not four-in-one. You will know these influential characters not by how they pontificate but by how they question. The supervisor who demands, "What will you do next?" will advance your career further and faster than the boss who instructs, "Next, move the widgets".
Remember Philosophy 101? Plato would be nothing without Socrates' relentless questioning. If you have Socrates riding shotgun on your management career, you will find your way to the corner office.