Pathway into a C-Suite Role: Three Skills that Prepare Leaders for the C-Suite

By Karen Armon, CEO/Founder, MarketOne Executive

Jared Gauthier loves technology. In college, he tinkered late at night with software code. His first job, almost 15 years ago, was as a software engineer. Over the years Jared has received increasing responsibilities as a team leader, project manager and group manager. Jared now has his sights set on a CIO role.

In a recent phone meeting Jared asked me, “I know that everything is changing rapidly due to today’s market. What skills do I need to get myself ready for a C-Suite role in three to five years?

Jared is a classic example of professional managers today who have a desire to move up in their organization. For Jared and others who are taking a proactive approach to their careers, here are the three master skills that will put them on the path to the CxO role.

Master Skill #1: Have Progressive Leadership Experience

A solid foundation in leading others is an essential first step. An upwardly-progressing manager needs to demonstrate experience in effectively using leadership skills to meet business goals.

Specializing in the role itself, such as becoming a better accountant, marketer, or technologist, will not prepare you to move up.  Nor will the information be considered useful in the top ranks.  If your goal is to move into the C-suite, you should be aware of how your department impacts the company, your clients and investors.  To be ahead of the curve, development must move beyond becoming a functional genius.  Rather, keep yourself educated about where your company o industry is headed.

Learning to be a great leader inside the company is also a rich source of progressive education.  As companies become more egalitarian, all employees must be focused on how to satisfy customer needs and find potentially new revenue streams.  One great example is how initially cell phones were designed for mobile telephony purposes with additional features to move the customer to buy.  Now, cell phones are no longer thought of as telephone devices but as personal computing platforms designed to serve lifestyle issues anywhere from gaming to financial management.

To master this skill, I suggest that you read materials by key leadership gurus that are breaking down how to lead others across a broad spectrum of environments and talking about how to partner with everyone.  Subscribe to online leadership publications where information about leadership innovation is pushing original innovation to find revenue capabilities for customers.  Follow key thought leaders in the industry who bring insights and ideas about leadership and human capital utilization in large picture schemes.

Master Skill #2: Get a Broader Business Perspective

Stephen Brown, CEO of PreCare, Inc., believes that in the future, CxOs may come from non-functional backgrounds or non-industry roles.  “As more and more executives become more comfortable with technology, the CxO of the future will be less about the business products and services itself and more about how intellectual property and human capital can be strategic differentiators.”

No longer will being the best functional expert in the company lift middle managers into the C-Suite. confirms this in their August 20, 2010 article, “The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead”: “CIOs who can only take orders, who can’t speak the language of the business, who can’t step out of the proverbial back-office and into the front lines of customer service, social media or supply chain management, will soon go the way of ancient tech gear – remembered fondly on occasion but sidelined in the future.”

Although most CxOs today are not selected from other functional roles, managers who wish to move up in roles must learn how business is shifting both inside the company and outside with key customers. To understand these shifts, keep in touch with trend setters or industry thought leaders who respond to the fluid landscape of customer trends and understand how customers are shifting their demands.

Additionally, review with the sales teams what feedback customers are telling them in the field.  Matt Wald, Partner of Context Advisory Group, believes that professionals must learn to identify, advance and build strategies that achieve business objectives. “They have to become more like business people.”

To master this skill, future CxOs also must understand how customers interact and build trust. They must know how to adapt quickly to customer demands, and build fluid delivery models.  “Leadership professionals need to embrace the fact that the idea of line and staff employees is extinct.  No longer can a company afford the luxury of individuals who just produce what the functional role requires,” warns Wald. “Future leaders must learn, on their own,  what’s happening in the world around them, including how customers interact with the company as a whole.”

Master Skill #3: Take a Proactive Role in Managing Your Career

The single most important thing aspiring CxOs can do is to take the development of their career into their own hands. Waiting for someone to discover you as you sit deep within the organization is just not likely to happen.

C-level executives in a company are partners, first, with the CEO/President and are responsible for what he/she is tasked to accomplish. CEOs are focused on five major issues as the head of the company:  market share growth, revenue preservation and growth, customer demand, stockholder returns, and business regulatory compliance.  C-level leaders are also partners with each other and must be able to translate these five major issues into strategic direction setting within their particular function.

Yet most professionals are perceived as not understanding the business or lacking in leadership skills by other top executives. Randy M. Knutson, former Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer with ING, suggests that middle-manager professionals need to be proactive in managing skill sets and knowledge development. “Keep an interest in your leadership training and become more interested and proactive within the business,” he says. “Be aware of upcoming business initiatives and volunteer to participate in early design discussions or pilot programs.”

Being able to communicate to the business is a key skill for future CxOs. While all budding C-Suite leaders are expected to be able to manage their department’s budgets and projects, Brown says that future CxOs must be able to explain how their initiatives will impact the organization in financial terms, and to inspire and motivate others in order to get their strategies adopted.

To master this skill, Brown recommends that professionals spend some time outside of their department and ask to rotate work in other departments. Wald suggests taking business classes outside of your field of expertise, or listen to public company’s investor calls to get an idea of the business issues firsthand.

The MarketOne Executive Bottom Line

No longer is depth of experience in one area or field enough to move up into the C-Suite. Nor will those who take a passive approach to their career ever achieve their goals. Rather, those who are upwardly focused must become job-ready in their own time and through their own initiative.

There are current themes that are agreed to by all who currently operate at the executive level. For those who want a top spot in the future, there are clear steps to take:

  • Understand the Heart of the Business. Get to know the fundamentals of business and of your particular company. Build strong sustainable relationships both inside and outside your organization. Expand your horizons beyond technology.
  • Know the Value of Your Departments Impacts to the Business. Understand the level of impacts that your projects and decisions make with your company. Make realistic plans to create and demonstrate value for your business solutions. Build trust and credibility by understanding your internal stakeholders’ needs.
  • Collaborate Across Silos for Growth. Find ways to collaborate with others and extend your skills and knowledge through these interactions. Test your leadership capability and learn how to listen for strategic issues where you can provide value.
  • Develop Opportunities to Connect with Customers. Stretch yourself by finding opportunities to connect with customers. Volunteer for marketing, sales, or customer care projects. Learn what customers want and how they view the company from a product/service standpoint.


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