Getting to The C-SUITE

Standing at the top of some of the highest mountains in the world offers a unique experience – an amazing view for one, an unbelievable connection with nature and much more but probably most important is the euphoria of knowing you made it. However, the path up that mountain is never easy and takes much preparation – sometimes months of physical training, hours upon hours of learning simple skills that you will need on the ascent (and that could save your life) and then weeks of conditioning at base camps before you begin the actual ascent. 

The journey to the C-suite, though probably not as physically exerting (at least not in that short a period) is no less challenging and in the course of supporting people at different stages in their careers, I often hear the question – What will it take to make it to the C-Suite? Truth is that while there might be several different paths to the top, there are some key things that you can do that help increase your odds of making it to the top and the speed at which you arrive there. 

Be Intentional – Getting to the top rarely happens by chance or accident

yes, I will be naïve not to acknowledge that there are individuals who are”installed” by powerful parents or godparents ….good for them….but for the rest of us who lack such support (or whose parents insist we earn the right to lead), it does take intentionality and commitment. The clearer you are about that goal, the greater your chances and odds of achieving it. Be specific and clear as to what role you want in the C-Suite – cause the C-Suite can be large (CEO, CFO, COO, CXO, CMO, CHRO….) with the various roles requiring a diverse set of skills. I know an executive who is super at what she does and is a brilliant leader (and now a CEO of a large organization) but her journey to the C-Suite began with a clear goal of becoming a COO. With this clear goal in mind, she made several critical choices along her career journey. 

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But beyond having the goal of making it to the C-Suite, you must commit to a plan of action to help achieve that goal. 

Your plan might not be perfect, and you might not hit every milestone when you hope to but come up with a trajectory that you hope to follow – where you’d like to be at various points (say tenure milestones). This will do two things for you. First, it gets you thinking of what you need to do to reach each milestone, but it also opens your mind to see opportunities along the way (that you otherwise might have overlooked).

Find ways to add big value – Everyone is expected to add value in their role – that’s a baseline expectation. But if you want to rise to the top faster, you must be committed to consistently looking for ways to add even more value than is expected from you or that you are paid to do. 

I once read of an interviewer who asked what the difference was between Nobel Prize winners and everyone else and one answer he got struck me as powerful – they answer bigger questions than everyone else. What big organizational (functional or even team) challenges are you asking questions about? How are you seeking to add value in ways that could impact the organization significantly? Doing this over and again can increase the chances of you being noticed by leaders, peers and even direct reports alike and in so doing, build a network of advocates (a significant asset along your journey to the top …. more on that in a bit). 

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But you might ask, what if my boss is insecure or hugs all the glory to herself or himself? The key I believe is two-fold. The first is in a word I used earlier – “consistency”. You will probably not be so unlucky that each boss you work with is a glory “hugger” and so while some might try to suppress or distort the impact of your contributions, others will not. The second is in being strategic and again, guiding your decisions (including the one to stay or move on from the role or organization) based on your end goal – the C-Suite. 

Gain the RIGHT experience – The C-Suite requires an enterprise mindset in making daily decisions – one that considers the benefits or impact to the entire organization and not necessarily one function (or silo). While functional experience is great, you must seek out opportunities to interact and work with other key functions or divisions within (or outside) your organization. Gaining this experience doesn’t mean you have to leave your job or functional focus as several opportunities exist within most organizations to gain this experience including being on cross functional task forces, volunteering your time and support to other functions, secondments and job shadowing. 

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Build a strong network – If you want to get to the top, it does help to have a strong network, especially at the top. All too often, I hear people complain about nepotism – how they were overlooked for a job and how the job was given to a colleague who was a “friend” of a key decision maker in the organization. Now while I understand that promotion decisions can sometimes be a sentimental and biased in favor of those who are close to decision makers, I think it is easy to miss the fact that one of the skill required in the C-Suite is the ability to build strong networks or coalitions (both within and outside the organization) that are focused on helping deliver organizational goals. Building stronger relationships with leaders does not necessarily equate to desiring acts of nepotism from them. Growing strong networks offers many benefits including among other things opportunities for mentorship and executive/leadership sponsorship – where these leaders are willing to “throw your name in the hat” for consideration for a role or promotion (without exerting any undue or unethical influence).

Of course there are other things that will influence your journey to the top but I believe that if you have a firm handle on these four, you stand a much better chance of getting there and more importantly, succeeding in the role. 

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