Opinion - Technology Executive Council

I climbed a billion-dollar corporate ladder by taking a lower title and less pay — three times

Diya Jolly, chief product officer at Okta
Key Points
  • Studies show that millennial job seekers will accept lower pay for a better professional title.
  • If you really want long-term success, your focus should not be on titles or pay.
  • Identifying skills development opportunities is the key.
Office workers

In the competitive working world, many job seekers think of titles as the currency of our time.

Millennials even take pay cuts in return for a more impressive-sounding role — sometimes losing as much as $10,000 in the process. But a better title doesn't necessarily equate to a faster or more direct career progression. To be clear: Your role absolutely matters, but it shouldn't be your primary motivator. To make real career progress, focus on skill development instead.

At three points in my career, I've taken a step down and accepted a lower title and salary. Without any context, I know this sounds like a misguided decision. But every step I took down the corporate ladder was intentional and helped me achieve greater long-term success, both in terms of achievements and compensation. Each new role taught me the skills I needed for my long-term growth and got me closer to my ultimate goal of becoming a product leader.

You need to prove your worth by forgetting your ego.

So many people are laser-focused on scoring a higher role. But if you lack the fundamental capabilities required to perform the job well, what's the point? Ignoring the fluff of a title and challenging yourself to learn new skills will help you grow in the long term, not just get to that next promotion. I've seen countless people move up the ranks early in their careers, only to plateau because they don't have the necessary skills to continue growing. If you have a solid foundation of skills, you can create new opportunities for yourself as you travel through your career.

Pearson CEO: A college education no longer 'defines' you for life
Pearson CEO: A college education no longer 'defines' you for life

As you move up the corporate ladder, the pressure you face — from your managers, stakeholders and customers — only increases. Executive teams are under a microscope and are watched closely by their boards and the public. If you don't have the necessary skills for a job, the "fake it 'til you make it" approach won't cut it when you're at that higher level. Eventually, you'll risk losing the position altogether.

This is why skill-building is one of the best forms of job security. If you stay up to date on your industry and keep track of what skills are in demand, you'll have a better chance of thriving in your job 10 years down the road.

So how can you identify what skills to cultivate? Here are four key steps.

1. Figure out where you want to be

Ask yourself what your career goals are and think about what motivates you. Always think five years into the future and consider where you want to be two or three levels above where you are now. After seeing my father repair an air conditioner as a child and listening to him discuss the inner workings of the machine, I became enamored with computer science and electrical engineering, pursuing a degree in those fields. It wasn't until I spent time working on engineering projects through internships that I realized I wanted to build and create things, which ultimately led me to product management.

2. Do some research on your desired role

Once you have a sense of where you want to end up, it's time to do some research. Let's say you want to work your way towards becoming the head of an engineering program. Read up on what makes a good engineering manager and what skills are required to succeed in that role. Two helpful resources are LinkedIn's skills and jobs reports. These reports will give you a better sense of the job market, and help you understand what skills companies want when they hire for the positions you're interested in. For example, according to these reports, if you're pursuing a career in engineering, you should focus on learning Tensorflow, Apache Spark, and natural language processing.

Skill-building is one of the best forms of job security. If you stay up to date on your industry and keep track of what skills are in demand, you'll have a better chance of thriving in your job 10 years down the road.

3. Network with people already in the job

Networking is another effective way to learn what skills you need. Find people doing the job you want and ask them what skills have been most useful or skills that would have been nice to know when they first started the job. You might be surprised by some of the skills you need. For example, through networking, I learned communication is a vital skill for product managers — even though this wasn't something I learned in business school.

Because I received this advice, I've worked hard to develop this skill in my own professional life. Better communication skills have helped me break down silos and maintain transparency and openness among all my team members. This kind of cross-functional skill set isn't something that will necessarily show up on a jobs report or make for a line item in a job description, but it's a key component of continued success.

4. Block off time to focus on learning

Once you've done your research and pulled together a list of what skills you need, it's time to dig in and focus on developing them. Learning a new skill takes time — there's no getting around it. You can't learn to code or become a better communicator in an hour. And when you're busy at work and your responsibilities are pulling you in a million different directions, prioritizing something long-term like skill development can be challenging.

My advice is to figure out what works with your schedule and block off time to focus on skills — maybe a half day every quarter or one evening per week after work. Take a systematic approach to learning by setting specific, attainable goals, such as, "This month I will do 10 coding exercises" or "This quarter I will read two books about improving leadership."

The cost of learning gets higher the more senior you get, so the earlier in your career you start building out skills, the better. Developing the right skills early on is the best way to take control of your career path, but skill development should be a career-long mindset.

Your title matters, but only as long as you're building the skills you need to keep moving forward. To reach your goals, you need to focus on long-term growth, not just the next promotion. Identifying the skills required to get there and setting aside time to cultivate them is your best form of job security. If you have the right skills, opportunities will come to you.

Diya Jolly is chief product officer at Okta, a San Francisco-based company that provides a cloud-based platform for secure identity and access management, and a member of the CNBC Technology Executive Council