As a leadership development coach, I often work with professionals who are seeking coveted positions in the C-suite for the first time. They often have had highly successful careers as Directors and Vice Presidents, but for whatever reason, struggle to attain their next career milestone as a C-level executive. This can be of course frustrating, especially for productive, accomplished individuals, most of whom have been working toward a top leadership position for their entire careers.
The irony is that the more one advances in their careers, while they are more likely to become desirable candidates for executive positions because of their experience and deep industry knowledge, the sheer volume of available opportunities, however, becomes slimmer. There are simply fewer positions at the top, and not everyone makes it there, no matter how hard they work or how successful they are in their current roles. While this is just a fact, talented executives are always in demand across industries and functions, and while the volume of opportunities becomes narrower at the C-suite, often it’s still a struggle to find the right talent to fill those positions.
If you’re a Director or VP-level professional looking to advance to the C-suite, there are a few things you can do to help you stand out as the right candidate for Chief management roles.
1. Showcase your demonstrable skills, especially those uncommon or highly sought after.
C-suite positions require highly specialized talent that can solve very specific organizational challenges, deeply understand specific markets and industries and produce specific results. As a Director or VP, you’re already a leader, but what does it take to lead at the top? Executives who find themselves in the C-suite for the first time quickly realize that the dynamic of being a C-level executive is quite different from the positions they held in the past. Closely study those who are in C-level roles like those you would like to occupy. What is their leadership style contributes to their success? What specific skills, continued education, and career experiences have gotten them where they are?
Also, read industry literature and market reports that forecast leadership trends and challenges. Management consultancies like McKinsey & Company, PwC, and top executive search and leadership advisory firms are all great sources you can utilize to help you better understand in-demand skills and competencies that can set you apart from the competition. Be sure to weave these insights into your LinkedIn summary, executive bio, and in your original thought leadership— be it contributed articles or speaking opportunities.
2. Proactively work to fill both skills gaps and leadership competencies.
If you find you don’t have specific in-demand skills or competencies sought for C-suite positions, find a way to get them. What new projects in your current role can you take on to both gain new expertise and, in the process, demonstrate your learning? Are there collaborative opportunities with other teams or departments that could help you gain functional expertise and insights you currently don’t have? Could serving on the board or steering committee for a nonprofit help you achieve new leadership competencies? Most business schools offer certificate programs as part of their continuing education programming. If you need to brush up on your digital aptitude, for example — find a course that will help you do so.
3. Empower your team.
While hard work has largely gotten you where you are today, hard work alone doesn’t take you as far the higher you advance in your career. Being in the C-suite is as much — if not more — about employing your strategy through your team and leveraging the skills of those you manage. This requires being highly deliberate about who you appoint, from directors and senior managers to assistants and agencies — they will all contribute to your own success.
Recruiting the right talent on your team is just the beginning, though. As a leader, you will have to keep your team motivated, focused on team goals and organizational mission. Plus, you will have to consistently develop and empower them to make decisions and take on increasing responsibilities so that their success becomes your success and, even more importantly, your organization’s success. As a Director or VP, you are already managing others, so find opportunities to demonstrate your management style and skills early.
4. Know your personal brand and match to organizational culture.
Just as organizations seek top leadership talent with highly specific skills, they also seek alignment with specific organizational cultures. To understand the types of organizational cultures where you will excel as a C-suite leader, you must deeply understand your personal brand. A personal brand is everything you bring to the table. It includes your skills and values, as well as how you add value in any situation.
Most executive-level professionals will have a vague sense of their brand, but many don’t know how to best exude a consistent personal brand for competitive career advantage. This becomes critical for gaining C-level positions.
Advancing to the C-suite from Director or Vice President-level can take time and may not come as quickly as you would like but staying motivated toward your goal and applying the core career management principles mentioned above can help get you there. As always, be sure to leverage your network and find new ways to grow it. Understand who should know you and know what you can bring to the table and find ways to develop relationships with them. Some ways to do this can include participating in industry conferences and serving on panels, seeking volunteer opportunities, serving on a board of directors or advisory committee, as well as publishing original thought leadership.