How to Reach the C-Suite: 10 Actions to Shift into High Gear

Think you’re ready for the C-Suite? Whether you aspire to the CEO, CIO, or CMO position, these 10 principles will help you market yourself in executive circles, develop an influential network, and reach your leadership goal sooner.

1. Build “up” your network. Assemble a personal board of directors to tap for business advice. Look for trusted, well-respected C-level leaders who will help you formulate a strategy of progression to the corner office. If you are the leader of your professional network and are the most knowledgeable and experienced in your group, it’s time to enlarge the circle of influence. “Your success, not only in climbing the ladder but in building a leading company, is as strong as the people you can call upon, because these are the people who will advise you, help you out, and whom you can appoint to key positions in your company in the future. As you start to get up higher in the pyramid, you realize that your networking ability, and your worth to the entire network, is what provides the keys to the kingdom,” says Bill Swanson, CEO of Raytheon (There’s No Elevator to the Top, Ramakrishnan, p. 87).

2. Evolve from tactical manager to strategic leader. Arriving in the corner office demands the vision of a “big picture” person. This is difficult for entrepreneurs who are accustomed to doing every detail in the business. To grow, you will have to delegate and trust your employees to do what you’ve trained and empowered them to do. “Develop a broad systems perspective,” says Dr. Kim S. Phipps, president, Messiah College. Have a big picture for how your skills are developing. “Never chase a position, follow a development path,” says James D. Dymski, regional oncology account manager, Pfizer Inc.

3. Be known for getting things done. Idea people and innovators are critical to the lifeblood of business, but the gifted strategist assembles the perfect team to make things happen. Be that person. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

4. Be a people broker. Whom do you know? More importantly, who knows you? Be sure the right people know you and know that you can be trusted and depended on in all situations. “I know how important people are to your business. Whether it’s on the golf course, at a sporting event, or on a board, I often refer skilled individuals to my colleagues and executive peers,” says Richard E. Jordan II, CEO and chairman of the board, Smith Land & Improvement Corporation and LB Smith Ford Lincoln Mercury Inc.

5. Be an expert communicator. Can you communicate clearly and persuasively to people? A CEO cannot do everything herself; her communication skills and “emotional intelligence” will be invaluable to attract an impressive and committed group of foot soldiers.

6. Cultivate a reputation for a strong value system and a strong work ethic—imperative qualities for the C-suite. “Work to the position above you. People will notice!” says Kelly S. Lieblein, vice president, Highmark Inc.

7. Cultivate intellectual horsepower and emotional intelligence. Regardless of your academic pedigree—Ivy, state, technical, private, community—a diploma shows the working world that you can set goals and achieve them. What you do with that acquired knowledge is what really matters as you rise the ranks of leadership. Your ability to listen, persuade, negotiate, and respect others are core leadership capabilities.

8. Gain a solid financial understanding.
Understand the bottom line, and how to read balance sheets. Understand profitability and cash flow, and how to reach maximum productivity for your department or company.

9. Make time for a robust life. “We expect our employees to live robust lives. We want to support them in their Ironman contests, their children’s sports achievements, through their Scout troops, and in their musical pursuits,” says Thomas F. (Chip) Brown, president, McClure Company. “If someone has to lose their marriage to be successful, then I don’t want to be a leader in that organization. And I don’t want to create a business environment that requires those sort of trade-offs,” says Walter Bettinger, CEO, The Charles Schwab Corporation, (There’s No Elevator to the Top, Ramakrishnan, p. 161).

10. Accept responsibility and have a deeper concern for being respected than for being well liked. The best leaders engender significant respect and support from their employees, not by leading with consensus, but by leading with decision-making authority. “To me consensus seems to be: the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?” says Margaret Thatcher (The Downing Street Years, p. 167).

Start your high-gear strategy today by initiating a conversation with the most successful business leaders in your region. Do not underestimate the power of a personal introduction, a sincere handshake, and an opportune business relationship.

“Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” Act 1 scene 4
Greatest English dramatist & poet (1564 –1616)

2 thoughts on “How to Reach the C-Suite: 10 Actions to Shift into High Gear

  1. Hooray for Anne and her great ability to once again~zero in on the fundamentals of C-leadership! Great sources and quotes here too Anne! You are an inspiring example of a leader in high gear! I doubt Ford can make a car with such gears!! Congrats on this post! Well done as expected! Go get ’em! See you soon! Amy

  2. Hi Amy:
    Such kudos coming from a powerhouse “woman in high gear” is highly valued! Thank you.

    I’m not sure leaders are born–I think they have certain skills and gifts and then they cultivate them by keeping company with great people and making tough decisions with discipline and resolve.

    I have learned a lot from the CEOs I work with. Alan Mulally, one of the world’s smartest CEOs, is a refreshing example of an executive who commands respect, leads with resolve and delivers results! Can’t wait to see you in Memphis May 6!

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