Career path to the C-suite: Strategies to reach the top
Getting promoted into the C-suite is never easy. Learn how executive recruiters can be a valuable asset for your career path.
Career path to the C-suite: Strategies to reach the top
Passed over for a promotion or struggling to find your footing near the top of the career ladder? You’re not alone. A feeling of “being stuck” is increasingly par-for-the-course for mid-career professionals. Perhaps you advanced quickly to a director or vice president-level position but now have hit a plateau in the middle. That C-suite job you’ve been working towards is just one or two promotions away, but the promotion pace has stalled. If you’ve been with your current company for three years or longer, it’s natural to wonder what’s next. Will you reach the C-suite here or do you need to look for opportunities elsewhere? What can you do to accelerate your advancement timeline and take control of your future?
When you reach mid-career, you have fewer advancement milestones, and each one is further apart. Advancement now depends not only on past performance but also on position availability. If the senior leadership team at your company is staying put, then there’s simply no opportunity for upward mobility, regardless of your qualifications. Making the jump to C-suite at another company can also be a challenge. An opening for CFO, CTO or CMO won’t be posted online. Without an inside connection, you won’t know about this opportunity or be able to apply. This leaves mid-career professionals in a Catch-22: they can’t count on promotions to reach the top at their current company, and they can’t count on a job posting to get a foot in the door at another company.
Our Talent Acquisition specialists work closely with professionals facing these challenges every day. No matter your circumstances, you can take control of your professional trajectory and reach the C-suite. This guide covers four of the most common questions mid-career professionals ask with actionable, strategic recommendations.
“How do I align my talents with the right company and leadership team?”
There’s no magic bullet for securing a promotion. Some criteria, such as demonstrating technical expertise, a proven capacity for strategic leadership, and general business acumen, are within your control. You can find mentors, join networking groups, and participate in continuing education to sharpen these skills and broaden your experience set. Other criteria, like a senior-level retirement that creates advancement opportunities, are out of your control. In this sense, reaching the C-suite can feel a bit like dating to find that forever relationship: timing matters just as much as compatibility.
That said, there’s no reason to sit back and wait for the opportunity to come to you. Your daily actions are key to setting the stage for success and staying ahead of the curve. In executive recruiting, we call professionals who do this “super employees with a sixth sense.” To outsiders, these professionals seem to have an innate understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it. It’s not that they have a crystal ball—they’ve simply chosen the right environment for their talents and are proactive in their daily work. As you consider your own advancement trajectory, start by asking these three questions.
Asking for a promotion puts you in a vulnerable position: you’re putting yourself forward to be judged and you could be found ‘not worthy’—a potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable outcome. Of course, you can’t assume that an organization will take care of you simply because you’re doing a good job. Your company is looking out for their best interests, not yours, and at the end of the day, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.
We always coach professionals to remember that a promotion is not a single conversation but a series of conversations about your impact potential. Your supervisor needs to hear consistently, “I want to be sure I’m not just doing a good job but an excellent job.” Then, prove your point by proactively taking steps towards professional growth. For example, if the next role requires significant business development responsibilities, what can you do now to demonstrate your ability to bring in new clients, in addition to acing your current responsibilities?
One surefire way to not get promoted is to act like it’s a done deal. Expecting to be promoted based on tenure or even past accomplishments, rather than your potential, will set you up for disappointment.
“How do I objectively assess why I’ve been passed over for a promotion—is it me or the company?”
Being passed over for a promotion can feel like a tremendous setback, especially at this stage in your career when promotion opportunities are fewer and less frequent. If you’ve hit (or exceeded) all your numbers, it can be difficult to understand why you didn’t make the cut. Put your emotions on the backburner and turn an objective eye towards why you were not promoted.
Promotions to the executive leadership team are based on future potential, not just current performance. Some common reasons within your control include:
In some cases, it’s not you but the company. Perhaps the company feels they need fresh vision, leadership or change management expertise to shift business directions and they don’t believe you’re in a position to provide this guidance. Or, perhaps you’re in the wrong environment for your skills. As discussed earlier, if you’re a big ideas person but the company needs a taskmaster, you’re setting yourself up to struggle.
“If a promotion at my current company won’t take me to the C-suite, what will?”
If you’ve reached the conclusion that promotions won’t be taking you to the C-suite at your current company—and that’s an important professional milestone for you—then it’s time to consider opportunities at other organizations. Start with the following:
“How can an executive recruiter serve as a career ally?”
Navigating a mid-career change is tricky even under the best of circumstances. For most professionals, discretion is key. You don’t want to tip off your supervisor that you’re considering new opportunities until you have your next step lined up. Initially, even finding time to refresh your resume and LinkedIn profile may be a struggle. An experienced executive recruiter can be a critical ally through this process, serving as a sounding board on everything from promotion potential to compensation expectations. The right recruiter can also help prepare you to navigate the interview process, getting your resume in front of receptive hiring managers for executive positions that may never be formally advertised.
In all likelihood, recruiters are already searching for you—just be sure you can be found. Spend a few minutes to optimize your LinkedIn profile and you’ll start getting recruiter calls almost immediately. Listen to their messages and call back recruiters who have interesting opportunities. Even if the opportunity they present doesn’t match your current advancement goals, let them know what it would take (salary, responsibilities, location, etc.) to consider a switch. They’ll keep an eye out for the right position– all with no time investment required from you. When the time is right, a recruiter can help kick-start your search in three key ways:
Once you reach the C-suite, the technical and functional expertise that helped you get to the top will matter less. You’ll need strong leadership skills and a solid grasp of business fundamentals, enabling you to see the business through a strategy and value creation lens. Critically, you’ll also be in charge of how you promote people, which can make or break company culture.
When people believe promotions are managed effectively, they’re more than twice as likely to give extra effort at work and to plan a long-term future with their company, according to Harvard Business Review. To foster this belief, you need to be transparent about the dynamics of executive-level promotions and what employees can do to best position themselves for advancement. Helping employees across your company connect with their aspirations is critical to building a winning, cohesive team.
If you observe valuable members of your team getting the same “stuck” feeling that you had, be proactive. Assess their prospects in the same way you assessed your own. Are they in the right role? Are they missing a type of experience? Are they lacking important soft skills? Have they not been given the chance to demonstrate their vision and leadership skills? Is there simple a lack of opportunity? Evaluate then work with them on a plan to get where they want to be—with a gentle reminder to pay it forward when they get there as well.
To learn more, contact us today.