Making the Leap to C-Suite
“Never bring a knife to a gun fight.” As the mother of two small boys, I’ve heard their father attempt to explain this longstanding bit of advice that I believe they first heard in an Indiana Jones movie. What does it have to do with positioning yourself for the C-Suite? More than you would think.
When I write for an executive client with their sights set on that C-Suite role, my strategic wheels are turning extra hard on their behalf. As with all of our clients, it is important for us to understand specific achievements. Did you save money, save time, grow teams, expand business? All of our clients consistently dazzle me with what they have done. After we know the “what” my next job is to understand the “how” and the “why” …and this is where things get interesting.
I’ve had the opportunity to write for dozens of C-suite clients. I’ve written for C…just about everything. There have been CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, CTOs, CSOs (Chief Strategy Officers), CPOs, (Chief People Officers), CCOs (Chief Commercial Officers), and CGOs (Chief Growth Officers).
As a writer, I have NEVER (not even once) had a bad experience writing for a client in the C-suite. They are incredibly friendly, understanding, willing to break big concepts down for me (thankfully!), naturally curious, and a pleasure to work with. In short, their relational skills and ability to connect with just about anyone shine through in every story they tell.
So, what do I hear? Let me share a tiny bit of the education I’ve gained by listening to some of the world’s most interesting and influential C-suite leaders. Here is what THEY think is important.
BUILDING SHARED VISION
A CEO at a multibillion-dollar global insurance company and the CIO at a $4B beverage company both talked about how important it was to build a new vision for what was possible. They both saw new possibilities in their sectors, rallied teams and leaders behind their cause, and motivated people with opportunities to be in on the ground floor of something game-changing.
LEADING THROUGH CHANGE
The COO at a $7B B2B packaging solutions provider and the CFO at a multimillion-dollar global data solutions provider told me stories about reversing years of profit decline by embracing innovation, process overhaul, and restructuring. They re-architected teams, embraced an ecosystems approach to business, and leaned into data and reporting to chart a new path forward.
INNOVATION & EFFICIENCY
The CIO of a $700M aerospace industrial business leveraged innovation to empower business growth. I’ve spoken to many COOs, CTOs, and other CIOs with similar transformation stories. Taking a business from a legacy model to modernized, digitized, and streamlined, is not a task for the faint of heart.
The CGO at a global fintech solutions provider and the COO at a multibillion-dollar global retailer both saw opportunities for growth and went for it in a big way. Creative thinking, an ability to connect the dots, and a talent for seeing what others do not, are highly desirable qualities in the C-suite.
Every single C-suite executive is a leader of leaders. Building shared vision, leading through change, driving transformations, and catapulting a company to realize unprecedented growth is not a one-person show. The CFO at a $100M manufacturing company once told me he knew every employee’s name and their birthday. He also said he “never wanted to be the smartest guy in the room.” (There was also another story about squirrels…but that’s for another day).
A CIO from Silicon Valley told me the most important thing he could do was attract, grow, and retain talent. To him, building a culture that valued diversity of thought, integrity, collaboration, and trust was foundational to all he could achieve. Another CIO told me his biggest strength was the ability to bring stakeholders from both business and IT together in collaboration.
So what didn’t they say?
They are at the stage where while they do see and care about the trees, the forest is their biggest concern.
So if you’re ready to make that leap to the C-suite, try thinking about what you’ve achieved through a different lens. If you’re writing that resume and trying to prove your worth by highlighting every detail of all the projects you’ve done, your amazing technical skills, and all the cool specialized things you know about, it’s possible (very possible) you are missing the boat in a big way.
Odds are good that if you feel you’re ready to make the leap, you’re already doing a lot of what a C-suite leader does. The most important thing you can do at this point is to reframe your stories and understand that what companies may value at the Director or VP level is not the same thing they look for in their next CEO.
Wherever you are in the process of making a switch, gaining an objective perspective on your Pattern of Excellence to-date will also be integral – just as a C-suite executive will have their own team of support to maximize company success, make sure to source your own. From mentors to career strategists and your closest business confidantes, put in place the strategic, supportive squad you deserve to see you through to that sweet, c-suite goal.