How to Become a C-Level Executive
Not every working professional wants to someday land an executive role. We often read about executive salaries and think, “Wow! That sounds great!” But with those big salaries come huge responsibilities.
Some very ambitious professionals, though, do have their sights set on a C-Suite level job. Many people who work in executive roles will tell you it’s a long climb to the top and not everyone has the skills, temperament, and characteristics to make it.
C-Suite level refers to a company’s top executive positions, and the “C” in the title usually refers to “Chief.” CEO is the executive position that most often comes to mind, but other top executive roles include CFO (Chief Financial Officer), CIO (Chief Information Officer), COO (Chief Operating Officer), and CMO (Chief Marketing Officer).
If you’re aspiring to land an executive role someday, there are many things you should know first. For instance, the skills and mindset that go into making a great employee don’t necessarily translate into landing an executive job. Executives must go beyond simply being good at their jobs and show they’re great at leading teams, motivating and directing workers, and thinking about the company’s mission and goals strategically.
Becoming an executive isn’t a straight-forward path, either. The road to the C-Suite usually involves practical things like earning an MBA, but it can also involve the intricacies of networking, developing key relationships with other executives, making tough decisions, and being the recipient of good timing.
Are you up for the challenge? If so, we’ve compiled the best information about landing an executive role. We’ll show you what skills and qualities you’ll need to develop and what it takes to end up in the C-Suite.
Developing Leadership Skills
As the business world continues to evolve, the expected skillset for executives keeps changing. Executives must have an array of technical skills and deep knowledge of new technologies. But C-Level leaders also must have the so-called “soft skills” like strong communication and leadership qualities.
Leadership is often cited as the most important skill an executive must possess. C-level executives are the face of a company and they must lead and inspire not only their employees but also the public and the customers they serve.
Many companies look for different types of leadership qualities depending on their circumstances, according to a survey done by Harvard Business Review. For example, some companies need visionary and bold leadership when they’re on a new path or adopting a new strategy. Most companies also look for executives who have the intangibles and capacity to lead a business through tough times.
Increasingly, executives must be able to think strategically and execute a vision for their companies. Strategic thinking is about looking at the big picture (especially in a global economy), identifying and developing new opportunities, and assessing the risks and rewards of those opportunities.
C-Level executives, even CEOS, usually don’t make these major business decisions single-handedly, but they must be able to contribute meaningful ideas about the company’s overall direction and business strategy. These strategic-thinking abilities surpass simply leading a department – it’s about having a voice in determining major decisions for the organization.
Making these strategic decisions requires keen business expertise, such as an understanding of the company’s market share, customer shifts, and trends within the industry the company operates in.
Other Skills Executives Must Have
Leadership and strategic thinking abilities are perhaps two of the most important skills an executive must have today – but they’re far from the only ones. Other highly sought-after skills for executives include:
- Technical expertise. Executives must be deeply knowledgeable about the areas they’re responsible for, such as technology, finance, or law. As a C-Suite leader, you must have a broad range of technical and business expertise because, as we mentioned before, you’ll be making decisions about the company’s overall business strategy.
- Understanding of new technology. There’s an oft-quoted maxim in the business world today that, “Every company is a technology company.” Increasingly, almost every company today relies on new technology, so C-Level executives must be able to embrace it, keep up with rapid changes, and understand how new technologies affect their companies.
- Ability to form relationships and teams. There’s more focus on teamwork in the business world today, and modern executives must be able to identify talented people and develop them. Executives in the most successful companies aren’t behind closed doors – they’re usually front-and-center with rank-and-file employees, and they must surround themselves with talented team-players.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
There’s no one-size-fits-all roadmap to becoming an executive, but there are certain things you can do early in your career to position yourself. One of those things is earning an MBA.
More than 40% of CEOs in the top 100 Fortune companies have earned an MBA, according to a study by Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm. An MBA will teach you the fundamental business knowledge many C-level executives must know to succeed. Earning an MBA and studying these fundamentals also helps you avoid getting siloed in your field of knowledge and gives you a wider appreciation of how the business world operates.
Taking the right jobs on the road to the C-Suite is also important. Gaining strong financial acumen and experience is beneficial, such as corporate accounting skills. Working at a major consultancy firm like McKinsey may also give you valuable experience, as many McKinsey consultants have gone on to become CEOs of public companies.
Remember to take initiative at each job you have. Volunteer for new opportunities to build your skills and go above and beyond your normal job duties. This proactive mindset helps you gain recognition and develop a network of co-workers who will become your advocates and references.
Also, remember to cultivate your personal brand. If you’re aiming to become an executive, companies will certainly look you up online, so be sure to present yourself as a professional on social media and even in your life outside of work. Character and integrity matter.
Developing a personal brand is important in the business world today, so think about what drives you personally and professionally. For example, if you love technology, share your fun and quirky side on social media (in a professional way, of course). Maybe that’s by sharing posts on how you built a computer or attended a tech conference.
At work, surround yourself with other ambitious and like-minded co-workers who share your values, and avoid negative people. By associating with other ambitious colleagues, you’ll develop more meaningful workplace connections and you’ll further your personal brand as a leader and positive force.
Networking to The Top
Networking is key for any professional, but it’s especially important for those who want to become executives. When companies hire executives (either internally or externally), they rely heavily on the recommendations of those they trust. That’s why it’s so vital to build relationships with other executives.
One smart way to do this is to pair up with an executive mentor, perhaps one at your current company. Get to know the person, seek their advice, and even ask if you can shadow him or her so you can get to know the day-to-day life of an executive. Ensure it’s a mutually beneficial relationship by doing things like helping with special projects or offering your unique insights.
It’s okay to be vocal about your ambition, though you don’t want to overdo it. Talking about climbing the corporate ladder is a sensitive topic, so approach these conversations with honesty and humility. You don’t have to hammer home your personal sales pitch all the time, but be sure to voice your new ideas and insights to show you’re serious about getting ahead.
Other key relationships to build are with people at executive recruitment firms. Top executive firms often have the inside track to the best C-Level positions. Network with people at these firms and remember the golden rule of building beneficial relationships where you offer something in return.
Embrace a Non-Linear Path
So let’s say you follow all the tips and have your career mapped out to the finest detail. As many senior executives will tell you, planning is nice, but don’t expect the path to the C-Suite to be a straight one.
Andrew Pray, CEO and founder of Praytell, told Ivy Exec that early in his career, he looked at other top executives and assumed they followed a linear path to the corner office. What Pray learned over the years was many careers that end up in the C-Suite often “zig and zag” a million times.
In other words, doing the right things and developing the right skills is important – but remember landing executive jobs also involves being in the right place at the right time. Pray, the Praytell CEO, advises young professionals to embrace a non-linear path to the top, as long as you’re being authentic and sticking to the qualities that are important to you.
Wherever you are in your career journey, Empire Resume can help by crafting you a killer resume, cover letter, or LinkedIn profile. With our library of insightful blog articles, you can also learn everything you need to know about getting ahead in today’s rapidly changing business world.
Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology.