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Five ways to successfully break into the C-suite

In the cutthroat world of corporate politics, there are multiple paths to secure your place in the C-suite.

A common characteristic of ambitious, career-focused people is the drive to become a member of the C-suite, an aspiration that extends well beyond the title (anyone can be CEO of their own business).

To achieve this, you’ll work hard to earn your stripes, taking calculated risks, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, subduing your fear of failure and navigating a political maze.

If you’re serious about making a big impact on an organization and the people in it, the C-suite is the room you want to be in. It’s the place where you have a say in the company’s strategic objectives and tactical decisions, and you’re able to genuinely influence outcomes.

It’s also the place where you find greater power, status and financial reward.

Paths to the C-suite

How to become an executive

There are many ways to earn a seat at the executive table. Probably the most common and most reliable is to join a company at a lower level, perhaps in a technical role, and work your way up. This has the advantage of giving the CEO and other executives an opportunity to gauge your performance over time in a variety of situations.

It also gives you the ability to acquire a deep understanding of the business, build critical relationships, showcase your talents and demonstrate your potential worth.

Getting to the C-suite this way requires a good measure of patience. There may be five or more layers to traverse, and you’re in competition for each new promotion with a bunch of other smart, ambitious people from both inside and outside the company.

And as you ascend, the air becomes progressively more rarified.

A good rule of thumb is that, if you want to be promoted to a new level, this is most likely to happen in your current company.

Promoting internal talent and bringing in talent from outside happens at virtually every level. So, which is the fast track: internal or external opportunities? As with most business questions, the answer is, it depends.

A good rule of thumb is that, if you want to be promoted to a new level, this is most likely to happen in your current company.

If you’re targeting a role in a different company, you usually have to prove that you’ve already done the job that you’re applying for, and that you were wildly successful.

Why, then, would you move?

Changing companies can open up new opportunities. It can be an effective way to acquire greater breadth of experience, and it can be a fast track to greater remuneration, because you’re not hamstrung by the perceptions that anchor you in the mind of your current employer.

What CEOs are thinking

It’s useful to consider the C-suite selection process from the perspective of a CEO, who will ultimately make the decision. Of course, every CEO wants to hire the best person for the job, but they will undoubtedly have to consider a range of other factors:

  • How will the board receive the appointment?
  • How do I mitigate the risk of a bad hire?
  • How will the new appointee fit with the existing executive team culture?
  • What other considerations (e.g diversity) do I need to pay attention to?

Whether you’re knocking on the door of the C-suite, or wading through the mud of middle management, there are five critical elements that will position you for promotion to the highest levels.

Build key relationships

A common element in virtually every successful career is the ability to build relationships at senior levels. You must at least have your direct manager in your corner, but it doesn’t end there.

I’ve been in many rooms where the executive team discussed the company’s talent and made decisions about an individual’s promotion prospects. This is where you need the leaders above to talk about you in glowing terms; not just your performance, but your attitude, behaviors and readiness for the next level.

It would be naïve to suggest that politics doesn’t play a part, which is why it’s preferable to shore up support in multiple spheres.

These days, where inclusiveness demands that “every child gets a prize”, make no mistake, these processes are highly competitive. It would be naïve to suggest that politics doesn’t play a part, which is why it’s preferable to shore up support in multiple spheres.

If you do your job really well, you may be seen as a threat by others – peers who will work hard to discredit you or taint your reputation – which is why broad support at more senior levels is a must.

Acquire the knowledge

How to become an executive

A great executive contributes beyond the narrow confines of their own portfolio. This requires a broad range of skills, starting with financial literacy and a basic understanding of investment analysis. It’s the language of business, so make sure you’re comfortable with balance sheets and P&Ls.

Financial acumen is an entry-level competency. You’ll also need a good handle on, say, marketing, business law, human resources and asset management, to be truly effective.

Financial acumen is an entry-level competency.

Although you don’t necessarily have to undertake postgraduate study, if you do choose to acquire an MBA, the payback will be many multiples of whatever time and energy you invest.

Short of this, at least make sure you’re constantly learning and growing. Read books, listen to podcasts and take on assignments that will enable you to consolidate any new skills and capabilities.

Know the business

This is an extension of your general business acumen, but it merits its own focus. Acquiring a deep understanding of how the business makes money, how it competes in the market and where opportunities for improvement might exist is a prerequisite to delivering superior performance, the type of performance that earmarks you for the C-suite.

If you can’t demonstrate your deep knowledge of the business in an executive selection process, you’re doomed to run second to one of the many people who can.

Think and engage at the next level

How to become an executive

There’s a big difference between a workhorse and a trusted advisor. Many ambitious people labor under the misconception that hard work will win out. Hard work is necessary, but not sufficient.

Even though companies love workhorses, they aren’t typically promoted to the C-suite.

Hard work is necessary, but not sufficient.

Workhorses are essential to their team’s results, so moving them would be incredibly risky. Worse still, they tend not to build capability below them. It’s common for workhorses to lead mediocre teams and compensate for their people’s shortcomings.

Trusted advisors, on the other hand, show that they understand the issues at the next level. They push back when appropriate and add real value to their boss and other senior leaders. They look up and out, rather than in and down.

Make no mistake, trusted advisors work hard. They just work hard on the right things.

Get results through people

Unless you can multiply your effectiveness by leveraging your team’s resources, you’re unlikely to be fast-tracked to the C-suite. This type of leadership requires a mental shift. Instead of simply giving more effort yourself – a naturally limiting strategy – work out how to make every person on your team more productive.

  • Eliminate the noise and focus your people on the highest-value tasks.
  • Give them extreme clarity on their objectives.
  • Support them, while holding them individually accountable for achieving agreed outcomes.
  • Generate momentum by setting a culture of excellence over perfection.
  • Set uncompromisingly high standards for behavior and performance.

Weak leaders lower the standard to meet the performance; strong leaders lift the performance to meet the standard.

There’s no substitute for results

Your career path will take many twists and turns, and the only thing you can be certain of is that it won’t pan out the way you expect. And it’s probably going to be slower and harder than you can imagine.

Keeping your head down and working hard is a poor strategy. Likewise, repeatedly jumping organizations in search of your dream role is unlikely to deliver what you want.

The path to success is to systematically build your capabilities, your relationships and your track record. There are no shortcuts, and there are many land mines along the way. So be patient, and keep growing and challenging yourself every day.

In the end, there’s no substitute for performance. If you want to crack the C-suite, focus on building your reputation as someone who consistently delivers superior outcomes.

Martin G. Moore is the author of Wall Street Journal bestselling book, No Bullsh!t Leadership, and host of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. He co-founded his business, Your CEO Mentor, with his daughter, Emma Green. Their purpose is to improve the quality of leaders, globally through practical, real-world leadership content. Find out more at

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