Kathryn Ullrich ('92)

February 01, 2011

By Paul Feinberg

Kathryn Ullrich ('92) understands that career paths aren't guided by some occupational GPS, with a specific set of directions to steer one from where they are to where they want to be. Through her own experience navigating her own career path and as an executive recruiter and director of alumni career services at UCLA Anderson, she knows that the journey is more like traveling cross-country with a map and a compass - they are tools to use as a guide but with the understanding that the route could change at any time.

Ullrich has just completed her first book called Getting to the Top, Strategies for Career Success. She was recently interviewed to discuss the book and how her own career has informed her work.

Kathy, how did you decide to go into executive recruiting and career management coaching? We presume one doesn't grow up dreaming of being a headhunter ...
I figured out in my early 30's what my career vision was, I wanted to be a successful business woman and mentor others. Believe it or not, I was doing jury duty in West Los Angeles when I was working in strategic consulting. A judge let us out early and I started thinking about what to do in the rare day off: bike ride down the strand, get my car washed, and what else? My mission in life popped into my head. I realized that strategic consulting would not lead me to becoming a successful business woman so I transitioned to software product marketing, running a business line. The company I was working for was acquired by another company that was not known for a commitment to work-life balance. As I started up my ensuing job search, I was asked, "Have you ever considered executive search?"

How did you make the decision to move into executive search and career management?
I recognized that executive recruiting was like the prior consulting I had done, except it revolved around people, not strategy. It gave me the path to the success I wanted and a way to help other people. I could interview executives and share what I learned with others.

I feel like I have married my experience in strategy consulting with executive recruiting to help people understand careers from a strategic point of view. Whether in business or in a career, you can't meet your objectives without knowing where you are headed and what to do to get there. So I started interviewing people, both in recruiting and in the Getting to the Top® career development program. I interviewed executives in different functional positions, VPs of marketing, VPs of sales, CFOs, and CEOs, and looked at their career paths. Knowing how others got to the top helps me in coaching clients on how to position themselves to get to similar positions.

Tell us a little about the book ...
Getting to the Top starts with thinking strategically about careers and takes a functional look at careers in marketing, sales, product management and business development all the way up to paths to chief executive officer. I did groundbreaking research to determine where executives in different functions came from and what backgrounds they had to reach those levels. I also summarized the lessons from the five years of Getting to the Top® career development programs into a career pyramid of leadership skills needed at the top. The book ends with advice for putting together a customized career action plan for readers to work on their own development for career success.

The book also deals quite a bit with leadership skills. What are the keys to transitioning into a leadership position?
The book points out that as you move up in your career, you go from doing to leading. Imagine the marketing manager who is used to doing. You get promoted because you're doing things well and when you move into leadership you're suddenly rewarded for leading, not doing. Executives share how they learned to delegate and empower a team and let go of details to improve at leading.

Since the book takes a functional perspective, I also detailed which skills require mastery at the executive levels, and what some of these distinguishing skills are by functional area. Using business development as an example, at the entry level you might negotiate a 100,000 dollar deal. At the VP level you might negotiate billion dollar deals. So, you had better learn to negotiate at the entry level because you're going to need that skill at the executive level.

What was it like to write a book, to distill into a manuscript what you've learned as a career consultant?
I actually started the process two and a half years ago. I started with a ten week webinar series on preparing to go to Book Expo America that taught attendees how to write a book proposal and how to talk to publishers. The proposal helps you to hone both the potential audience and the book itself, it's like writing a business plan. The research came from five years of Getting to the Top® programs and compiling the best of those programs. Plus, I have combed through thousands of resumes for the book. Believe me, no one wants to repeat that research, but my stats class taught me you need the right sample size, so I went through thousands of resumes for each career path category.

What's the best advice you can give to your fellow UCLA Anderson alumni?
I advise our alumni to think strategically about their careers and to take responsibility for their own career development. In the old days, people joined organizations and worked their entire careers at companies like IBM, with life-time employment. Today we move between companies as our careers progress. With more movement between companies, there is less incentive for corporations to invest in career development for their employees. And, entrepreneurial companies offer little in career development unless you work for a great boss. So, you've got to take your own responsibility for your career because no one else is going to do it for you.

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