According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 343,000 top executive jobs, versus about 2,124,100 jobs in lower and middle management (a ratio of approximately 6:1). This points to one often overlooked barrier to ascending the corporate ladder:
There are far more professionals competing for C-suite roles than there are opportunities available. So, what does it take to successfully make the transition from mid-level manager to corporate leader? It starts with understanding that the skills that helped you reach the top of your functional ladder are very different from the skills you need to be a successful c-level executive.
In general terms, they may sound similar: strategic thinking, industry knowledge, people development, building and leading teams, change management, etc. But the level of competency required in each of these areas is vastly different.
This post is therefore dedicated to demystifying how to enhance these core competencies in order to get yourself c-suite-ready.
I. Technical skills ….. are now “just” a baseline requirement
This is often the hardest thing for aspiring or newly minted c-level leaders to wrap their heads around: Your technical skills are now “just” a baseline requirement
Don’t get us wrong, you absolutely are expected to be a leading light in your functional area of expertise.
But just being successful in leading your functional area isn’t enough to be an effective c-level leader. It’s table stakes
II. The ability to think strategically ……way beyond your functional area
“The ability to think strategically” is one of those opaque phrases so often seen (and over-used) on job descriptions and resumes. As a functional leader, thinking strategically refers to one’s ability to develop goals based on a deep understanding of the trends in your functional area and how this may impact your organization’s long-term growth. This level of strategic foresight is a sophisticated skill, which requires years of experience and dedication to your area of expertise.
However, you have to kick it up several notches to be effective at the c-level, because those leaders must be able to think strategically beyond their own functional area.
As a c-level executive you have to be able to grapple with and develop strategic plans for business issues that impact and involve functions and resources across the business – not just your own.
How to develop it:
The ability to think strategically at an organizational level is not something you can develop overnight. A leader who aspires to the c-suite needs to consciously work on it by seeking stretch assignments outside of their functional expertise.
In addition, they should pro-actively build relationships with peers across the organization to increase their awareness and understanding of issues and challenges across the business.
III. From market insight ……to outsight and global outlook
If technical expertise was about your functional area (eg. marketing, finance, engineering, product, operations, etc), then market knowledge is the deep understanding you have built up as a functional leader about your organization’s competition, its suppliers, customer base and the regulatory environment. You know it so well that you can spot trends and adjust your function’s business strategy accordingly.
However, as a c-level executive, you are expected to contribute to the development of a clear and compelling vision for the company as a whole as well as for your function – not just this year, but for the next few years. You need to be able to anticipate changes in the market even before they happen. To do that you need to zoom out of your usual focus on the here and now that is directly related to your function, industry and market.
You need to broaden your interest to become more engaged with developments in the wider world around you, both economically, legally, socially, politically and culturally. Only then will you develop the outsight and broader understanding of the forces at work in the market to anticipate forthcoming changes.
We refer to this as becoming a “learning leader”: a leader who accepts that her business environment is forever changing and willing to put in the effort to constantly develop new skills and outside understanding.
In addition, C-level leaders nowadays absolutely need a well-informed global outlook to enable them to help their businesses navigate the increasingly complex and increasingly boundary-less global business environments in which they operate
How to develop it:
The proactive, aspiring leader should seek out international experiences if at all possible to gain a more global perspective.
Additionally, developing outsight is not just a case of reading the Economist, the WSJ and watching 90 Minutes or Bloomberg West. In order to truly develop your outsight, you need to actually digest and integrate this information to formulate your very own opinions and ideas. Moreover, to actually showcase your outsight, you need to dare to share your observations and learnings with a wider audience, be it through speaking engagements, blog posts, podcasts, etc.
Yes, this is a time-consuming practice, but no-one said that getting to the c-suite was easy!
IV. From day-to-day management …..to team leadership
At lower management levels, we often see emerging leaders still rely on old-fashioned command-and-control leadership styles. Only by the time they reach middle management do most leaders learn how to engage their team member’s hearts’ and minds towards a shared purpose to drive their performance.
However, functional middle management leaders tend to still spend most of their time on day-to-day management issues, rather than long term planning.
In contrast, a c-level executive should no longer be involved in the day-to-day management of their function. They need to hire and build a team to which they can delegate full authority for the day to day execution of their function’s responsibilities.
Instead of being involved in the day-to-day, the c-level executive’s main focus should be on:
- ensuring the team members understand and are inspired by the vision
- actively developing and enabling the team to perform through providing the necessary training, coaching, hiring and other resources
- challenging the team to ensure they operate on the cutting edge
- recognizing and celebrating their team member’s efforts and contributions
- practicing what they preach by demonstrating their beliefs and expectations through their own daily actions
How to develop it:
This is a really hard transition for any leader and you’ll only be able to make it successfully if you first focus on hiring and developing the right team so that you can delegate full authority for the day-to-day management.
Newly minted c-level executives often get this wrong: They give in to pressures from the CEO to push for quick implementations of new strategic initiatives rather than first taking the time to get their team in order.
Be aware of that pitfall. Negotiate if you must to buy the time to first focus on hiring and developing your team.
To learn more about the five practices of exemplary leadership as described above, we recommend reading The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.
V. From intra-team collaboration …..to cross-functional collaboration
Though everyone is talking about collaboration these days, many functional leaders will admit that cross-functional collaboration is easier said then done. One of the most common hurdles for cross-functional collaboration is that functional leaders are usually measured against their own sets of goals and objectives and collaborating with another team might gets in the way of achieving their own goals and objectives.
In the c-suite there is no room for that kind of competition: The top management team shares responsibility for the company’s success and as such they are expected to work highly collaboratively for the good of the company.
Moreover, in today’s increasingly complex, interconnected world, the customer experience often involves interactions with multiple departments in the organization – from marketing through to customer support. Hence, functions are becoming more interdependent by the minute.
So the time of the individual star-based c-level executives is long gone. Instead, ideal C-level candidates need to be team players and have solid cross-functional internal networks they can leverage for collaboration and influence when stepping into the c-suite.
However, just being good at working the internal politics of an organization isn’t enough.
C-level executive also need to have influence beyond the walls of their organization.
For example, they need to have and maintain relationships with key people in the media, governments, subject matter experts in their industry or functional area of expertise, as well as with shareholders, regulators and of course employees, suppliers and customers.
How to develop it:
Strong internal and external networks take years to cultivate. Nor are these “just” LinkedIn connections. This why any leader with c-suite aspirations really needs to approach their networking as a critical business strategy, including clear goals, plans for execution and metrics to measure performance.
VI. From change management ……..to an agile mindset
By now you’ve climbed the ladder high enough to know that change is a never-ending part of business.
However, at the c-level it is no longer about incremental change, but about aligning and mobilizing the whole organization to change with you – to adopt specific behaviors, processes and practices to improve processes, and systems and develop new products and services that will support the company’s strategic vision.
In the past such firm-wide change initiatives were usually periodic, followed by a period of stability.
However, in today’s ever-changing business environment, c-level executives need to accept that their environment, and hence their business, is in a state of constant flux. The best leaders therefore operate with a continuous change- agent mindset.
Given the speed of change in today’s business environment, leaders no longer know exactly what the outcome should be. They only know the direction. To operate like this they need to use agile processes to guide their teams through rapid iterative cycles of build-, measure-, learn to quickly prototype possible new solutions. This agile approach allows them to learn what the market wants as they move along, rather then using the old way of change management which required a fully specced pre-defined outcome which, at times, ended up being the wrong solution by the time it was delivered
How to develop it:
Agility is a mindset. It starts with embracing the ambiguity found in today’s fast-changing business world. Accept that what you know today may no longer be true tomorrow.
Furthermore, to succeed as an agile leader you need to combine adaptability with strict accountability.
- Adaptability means using consecutive Build, Measure, Learn cycles to find new solutions and redefining failure as an opportunity to learn what the best new solutions are.
- Accountability means pre-setting clear goals and metrics on how you are going to measure the outcomes of each cycle.
To learn more about innovative leadership I would recommend reading this great 2014 paper by the Center for Creative Leadership, “Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation” . For more about the lean startup principles, read Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
VII. From budgeting ……..to full-blown financial literacy
Except for those in sales or business development, few functional leaders have real p&l responsibility and with that often lack in-depth financial awareness, which is a must-have for anyone who aspires to the c-suite.
C-level executives are tasked with driving the financial growth of the company. It’s therefore imperative that they understand in detail how the business operates to make money – i.e. cost of goods (COGS), key supplier rebates, seasonal drivers, customer acquisition cost, volume discounts, key supplier/material cost dependencies, overheads, taxes, etc.
In the end, what each function does in an organization should contribute towards “moving the profit needle”. It is therefore critical that each c-level executive understands and can explain how their function impacts the company’s profit. For example, a CTO needs to be able to explain how tackling the tech debt will eventually enable them to make more money, even though it may initially look like it is just costing money.
How to develop it:
This used to be one of the main reasons why people went off to do an MBA. However, with a little application, you can learn a lot if you simply make friends with your company’s Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) team, controller, VP of Finance and CFO. Meet with them regularly and ask them to talk you through the numbers. Have them also challenge your department’s spending so you can get used to their “how does this help us make money” mindset.
And once again, this is also one of those skills, which you can seek to develop through applying for special stretch assignments.