Climbing the Ladder — Moving Up Into a C-level Role - Senior Executive
Executive Life 8 min

Climbing the Ladder — Moving Up Into a C-level Role

The number of C-level positions is expected to grow by 4% over the next seven years. See how you can secure your spot at the top.

by Brian O'Connell on June 30, 2022

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  • C-level leaders often receive jobs through promotions and succession planning

  • C-level execs may also have an entrepreneurial background

  • Look for ways to demonstrate leadership potential beyond your job description

Sliding into the C-suite is the goal for most senior executives. Salaries range from $234,000 annual for chief marketing officers to $754,000 for chief executive officers, according to Salary.com — which doesn’t include stock options and access to a myriad of perks. The industry prestige alone makes the corner office aspirational. 

While scaling the corporate ladder is a challenge for even ambitious leaders, some sunlight pierces through the fog. The number of C-level positions is expected to grow by 4% over the next seven years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

See how you can best position yourself to land a C-level role. 

Two Paths to the Top 

So how can you best position yourself for a coveted position with a corner office? “There are two paths to C-suite positions: working your way to the top or starting your own business,” says Brandon Adcock, co-founder at Adaptive Health, a dietary supplement manufacturer in Charlotte, N.C. “The first is the traditional route, and the second is risky but has potential for great rewards.” C-level leaders may also be recruited from other organizations if their experience matches the company’s search criteria. 

The traditional path to the C-suite is more of a long game, requiring years of loyalty, dedication and demonstrated success. “The benefit here is that even if your career advancement is more modest than you dreamed, you’ll enjoy more stability and gain years of experience along the way,” Adcock says.

Starting your own business carries risk but still, many lower-level executives advance into C-suite positions by taking on consulting roles, launching new ventures or acquiring small businesses and growing them. 

“This route has the potential to pay off a lot sooner than 15 years of dedicated service to a bigger company, but there’s a small safety net for failure,” Adcock notes. 

While you can choose your path, remember that each organization will take a different approach to hiring its top leaders. 

“If you’re already working for the company, you understand the expectations of the role and have role models within the company that you can emulate,” says Lana Lodge, executive vice president of business operations for MPOWER Financing, a fintech firm that specializes in student loan financing. “Additionally, you likely have a solid understanding of the company’s vision, mission and values.”

As a member of the C-suite, candidates embody these company values and align themselves with the organization’s vision. “Having the inside track on business and culture priorities will help you position yourself in the most favorable light to snag that promotion,” Lodge says.

See the table below for common reasoning behind each approach. 

Hiring an Internal CandidateHiring an External Candidate 
The executive is well versed in the industry, company and culture.People view the executive from a fresh lens.
The executive can quickly produce results if capable.The new hire has no internal political baggage or claims of favoritism based on past relationships. 
The candidate knows internal stakeholders and can navigate company politics. The new leader can bring new ways of thinking and a varied background to the organization. 
The candidate understands the company’s mission, vision and values.The executive may have much more experience or expertise than internal candidates.
The exec likely has role models and mentors inside the company.By hiring an exec externally, there’s no need to fill a vacated management position. 

Demonstrating Your Potential 

Senior executives eyeing the C-suite, take note: Most large corporations have succession planning and high-potential leadership development programs.

“You want to be part of those programs,” says David Windley, president of IQTalent Partners and former chief human resources officer at Yahoo. “It also helps to be in visible, impactful roles that can display your leadership potential. Look for assignments and roles that have visibility to other C-Suite executives.”

Senior executives must also develop and deploy the “twin P’s” — performance and potential — that can ultimately separate them from the rest of the crowd.

“Performance and potential are often the two areas of development and identification for leaders,” says Gia Ganesh, vice president of people and culture at Florence Healthcare, in Atlanta, Ga.

  • Performance. “For C-level executives, performance is how they are performing in their given role. Are they delivering results consistently? Are they going above and beyond in their role?” explains Ganesh. 
  • Potential “is what they are capable of achieving,” Ganesh notes. 

While potential can be difficult to measure, showing your leadership and decision-making skills can prove your ability. Remember bold moves separate top executives from the pack. 

“Look for opportunities to lead before it becomes part of your job scope, take on responsibility before it’s assigned and showcase your business impact using the data available, especially in key areas like revenue and sales,” Lodge advises.

Taking on lateral experiences that can have a significant impact on your organization can be an effective way to advance toward a C-suite position. Look for projects around optimization, increased efficiency or new ways of going to market, says Shari Hofer, who recently joined the C-suite at publishing giant Wiley as chief marketing officer. Share your ambitions to run these projects with those more senior than you at the organization.

“Often, if you are in a business unit or focused on one product, it can be difficult to affect the business as a whole,” says Hofer. “But if you can take on a project or initiative that has the possibility of changing the trajectory, you truly make a difference and show your vision.”

When Hofer first started at Wiley as the head of research marketing, she identified the need for improved coordination and communication across the business units’ marketing teams. 

“I proposed that we come together as marketing leaders across the organization to form a Marketing Council which met regularly and provided a forum for us to identify pain points and prioritize collective solutions,” Hofer says. “This was beyond the scope of our roles, but we recognized that we needed to lead with our customers at the center of all we did and that our internal structure needed to support this effort. Collaboration was key to driving this forward.”

At Wiley, the Marketing Council became the voice for marketing. As a result of the Council’s collective work and progress, Wiley’s CEO asked Hofer to form a new Global Enterprise Marketing team, and then to take on the role of CMO. 

“Through the Marketing Council, I gained new experiences, collaborated with other marketing leaders, and gained exposure across the organization that informed my approach as I stepped into the role of CMO,” Hofer notes.

Importantly, aspiring leaders should not let others tell them what they’re capable of. “Instead of relying on others to make plans, set your own destiny and show the leaders that you work with what you can achieve,” Hofer ads.

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The Biggest Mistake Executives Make in Their C-Suite Pursuit

Hubris is the biggest gaffe senior managers make when climbing the C-level ladder. Being selfless and emphasizing service to others also opens eyes in the C-suite. According to Hofer, selflessness is also a big part of showing leadership potential. “You need to put the needs of your organization and your people in front of your own ego to succeed,” Hofer adds. “Otherwise, you’ll be limited in your perspective and your impact.”

Additionally, senior execs need to be able to create buy-in with peers, the CEO and at the C-suite level — yet many don’t pass this test.

“The ability to create that buy-in in the interview process is a big test,” Ganesh says. “Yet in that vetting process, many senior executives fail to show they can create the time and space to create and execute big picture thinking.”

Senior executives also fail when they underestimate the values and culture alignment needed at top-level corporate management. “How you get the work done or build a team is equally if not more important than the results itself,” Ganesh says. “The lack of alignment from a values perspective sometimes is termed as personality mismatch.”

Above all, what matters for a C-suite-minded senior executive – internally or externally – is to manage organizations and get things done through others.  

Consequently, the ability to assess talent, put the right teams together and have them execute through various operating mechanisms is key.  

“It’s not about being the smartest person in the room or being the best individual performer, but it is about who can get a team and organization to perform at the highest levels,” Windley says.

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