C-suite Ready: How Do You Become a Top Executive?


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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
June 20, 2024 at 9:8PM UTC
C-suite executives and positions are highly coveted roles. Many people at various levels in their careers aspire to be executive leaders, whether now or some distant day in the future.
If you are hoping to reach C-suite level, what abilities and qualities do you need have to get there? What should you do to cultivate these qualities—and show your company's leadership team that you are up to the task of joining their ranks?
Read on to find out what it means to be a chief official at a company, what qualities top leaders should possess, and some steps you should take if becoming a high-level leader is your dream.
Who are c-suite executives?
C-suite level refers to a company's top senior executives. The "C" in C-suite titles usually refers to chief. C-suite titles may include chief executive officer (CEO), which is usually the top position at any company or corporation—the person who signs off on most important decisions. Other common C-suite roles include chief financial officer (CFO), the person who works on business strategy, financial opportunities and analysis, and risk management; chief information officer (CIO), the individual who governs the information technology infrastructure and generally manages the information technology (IT) aspects of the business; and chief operating officer (COO), an individual who makes sure internal operations run well and often deals more directly with individuals in the company than the CEO might.
Individual industries may have other C-suite roles. For instance, chief technology officer (CTO) is a common role in tech companies and startups, where the digital capabilities of the company are crucial to the brand's success. Chief academic officer (CAO) is a title often found in higher education. Some organizations have chief marketing officers (CMO), who work on developing the company's promotional and often digital strategy.
The number and specific role of C-level positions varies according to the size, function, and industry of a company. For example, at a company like Amazon, you'll see many C-level positions, including CEOs for specific areas and locations. On the other hand, a small startup may have a single executive or none at all.
How do you attain C-level jobs?
It's rare for someone to start out as an executive, unless she's the founder of a startup straight out of school. Even then, most people gain some experience at other companies before going out on their own; this can help them understand what it takes to run a business, how to manage the day-to-day operations, and what is required of leadership.
It may come as a surprise that the skills that make you a good employee aren't necessarily the same ones that make you a good leader. According to the Harvard Business Review, rather than displaying the technical expertise and skills required to do your job well as employee, C-suite leaders are more often asked to contribute to the overall business strategy, as well as lead teams.
Historically (and by historically, I mean just a couple decades ago), C-suite executives often had duties more aligned to the work they had been doing as lower-level officials and employees and more specific to their particular line of work or department. For example, a CFO mainly measured the financial performance of the company, reporting and analyzing the numbers.
Today, however, the tasks that were once under the purview of a CFO are instead the responsibility of a CFO's accounting team. The CFO, on the other hand, acts as a partner to the CEO and other executives, seeking out new opportunities for the business, balancing the financial risks against their rewards, and having a strong hand in the company's overall strategy.
"Strategy" is a key word for all executives, not just CEOs. In addition to being adept at managing and leading teams, nearly every C-level executive is expected to contribute in a substantial way to the company's overall business strategy. While they don't necessarily make important decisions single handedly (though some do), they have a voice in developing the direction of the company and contributing to the overall mission, as well as seeking out new opportunities and directions for the brand.
So, how do you rise to the ranks of C-level executives?
Well, it doesn't happen overnight. Many highly diligent and successful people never achieve C-level status. As we noted earlier, being a successful executive requires different skills from doing your job well as an employee. In addition to being team-oriented, possessing strong leadership skills, and having the capacity to multitask, C-suite leaders should also have the following skills and capabilieis:
• Understanding and sharing in the mission of the company
• Having the business sense to be able to identify and cultivate new opportunities
• Being able to assess the risks and rewards of ideas and opportunities
• Being able to motivate and direct teams
• Knowing how to communicate ideas effectively
• Knowing how to prioritize objectives
Even once you reach an executive position, it can be difficult to navigate your new role and responsibilities. McKinsey & Company reports that many new executives have trouble earning the support of others for their ideas. Those who are most successful rely on their teams and direct reports to support them and provide them with resources to do their job well. They also take the time to learn about the company's culture and way of doing things, since many high-level executives are brought in from outside organizations, rather than ascending the ranks internally (though, of course, some do attain leadership roles that way as well).
McKinsey & Company identifies four main areas an executive needs to govern: business, culture, team, and self. A successful executive takes the time to work on each of these areas: cultivating a vision and mission for the company, getting to know the culture of the business, creating and relying on a team of capable individuals, and identifying strengths and weaknesses in herself, as well as preparing for the personal demands of the role.
Reaching the level of executive requires extensive leadership experience—you will likely need to have served in management and leadership positions (probably quite a few) in the past, led or oversaw important projects, and shown initiative in a quantifiable way. You will also need to possess the soft skills that make anyone a good leader: creativity, dedication, resilience, critical thinking, and problem solving.
When seeking a C-level position, networking is your friend. (Of course, networking is always your friend.) You will need to build relationships with people in your industry who can put in a good word for you. Of companies that hire outside candidates for executive roles, rather than promoting internally, most find them based on recommendations from both internal and external contacts. So take care to get to know people in your industry or related industries and develop a large network and a stellar reputation.
This is true even if you hope to be promoted internally. You will want to get to know senior executive leaders at your company as well as others in your industry, because that is how they will notice and identify you as strong talent. Attend events your company or industry sponsors. Even work parties can become networking events; you never know whom you might encounter. Be prepared to network. That doesn't mean you should immediately make your sales pitch as soon as you shake hands; instead, introduce yourself if you haven't already met, and explain your role. Let the conversation flow naturally; there may be a time to segue into your ideas for the company.
Many people become C-level executives by starting their own companies. Startups are a great way to take initiative and make your vision a reality—but that's a topic for another day.

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