If you have set your career sights on ascending to the highest levels of any organization, rest assured the competition is stiff and the demands are high. For one, there are far more professionals competing for C-suite roles than opportunities available. And organizations are willing to look far and wide to attract leaders who have the skills, experience and style to drive strategy and success.
Whether you see yourself as a future Chief Human Resources Officer, CEO or in another equivalent executive role, recognize that being a strong technician or functional expert is less important at this level of leadership. Organizations are seeking individuals with broad business acumen, a strategic mindset, excellent communication skills, and the ability to motivate and inspire teams. Yes, Chief Financial Officers, for example, must have a solid understanding of accounting and finance principles. But can they link these functions to strategy and risk management? Are they ready to tackle the broader business challenges faced in an increasingly complex global marketplace? Regardless of the exact title associated with your C-suite aspirations, you should take a closer look at how you are preparing yourself to meet the demands of a senior executive. Consider these tips for advancing your career:
Give Your Professional Development a Push – Post-secondary education is clearly important. A senior executive without a relevant degree, or several, is nearly unheard of these days. But beyond formal education, most workplaces are fertile ground for development opportunities. Take the stretch assignments. Push yourself to do the difficult tasks. Seek opportunities to work in areas outside your traditional focus. Perhaps you’ve concentrated on finance, but would benefit from exposure to operational responsibilities. Or you’ve been working within a particular geographic region, but have been invited to broaden your scope. Seize the opportunity; breadth of experience is often more important than depth.
Seek Out a Coach – The most seasoned professional can benefit from an outside perspective – someone who can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and develop a plan to build skills that improve your performance. Frank and open feedback can be difficult to find the higher you rise in an organization, which is why many leaders seek the professional advice of an outside coach. The engagements are often short term, but the insights gained can be lasting.
Find a Mentor – Not to be confused with a coach, the ideal mentor is someone with whom you can safely discuss issues that impact your personal and professional success. Usually a longer term arrangement than coaching, mentors typically have already succeeded in reaching similar professional goals to what you are seeking. As a result, they can help you navigate the relationships and challenges you likely will face along your desired career path.
Put Your Leadership to the Test – If your current role doesn’t offer the opportunity to lead in a significant way, seek out other avenues. Many boards need new directors – capable professionals eager to make an impact. If you are early in your career, you may find not-for-profit boards have lower barriers to entry. In any case, board experience provides the opportunity to build your network and contribute to your community as you strengthen your leadership skills and hone your style.
Show-up as C-level Ready – Emulate the person you aspire to be. That does not mean you should mimic your favourite executive, at least not exactly. Instead, consider who you want to be as a leader and how you should communicate and carry yourself based on that ideal. How would you like your references to describe you? What are you doing to shape your professional brand image? Your reputation is ultimately in your control and is influenced by everything you say and do, both personally and professionally. Take a close look at your digital footprint, community involvement, professional approach and perhaps even your personal life to make sure they all align with the leader you are striving to become.
When you do get the call for the C-level role you desire, whether it is an internal promotion or an external opportunity, be ready with the confidence one would expect of a C-level leader. Prepare for likely questions by reviewing financial statements, annual reports, industry trends and news, and think about how you will respond. Reflecting on past successes and challenges – the tough times and the best (and worst) leadership moments – will help you deliver compelling and engaging answers. Where you lack direct experience to authentically answer a ‘what would you do?’ question, draw inspiration from what your ideal leader would likely do in the same situation.
Today’s C-level leaders face demands and stresses that require uncommon stamina and character. In crisis, they are called upon to provide strong, confident leadership and concise, careful and compelling communication. As much as they are strategists and advisors they must also be collaborators, able to build consensus and motivate action. It’s a rare few that will successfully rise to the challenge. But if you have the ambition and drive to take your experience and skills to the next level, it is time to start preparing yourself for the C-suite.
This article previously appeared in the The Chronicle Herald, November 28, 2015.