How to Get on the Shortlist for the C-Suite
The career question I hear most often from rising senior leaders is this: “How do I get on the C-suite shortlist?”
The management literature is overflowing with advice on becoming the boss. Yet the path narrows significantly as executives ascend closer to the top slots. Having played a role in many C-suite successions, I’ve found there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. All organizations are different and every executive brings unique strengths and experience. That said, I’ve identified a few fundamentals that top the list.
Know how long you’ll be in line. If you are the number two executive and the current C-suite leader is young, well-liked, and only two years into her tenure, you’re looking at a lengthy wait. Conversely, if you’re the heir apparent and your boss has said he would like to do something new in one to two years, your time may be close at hand.
The point is, take steps to put yourself in the right place at the right time. With transparency in succession planning becoming a priority, career management for senior executives becomes easier. You can’t control someone else’s succession, but you can use your knowledge strategically. Decide how long you are willing to wait, and understand the succession timeline. If you are a C-suite hopeful and there’s no spot opening up in your timeframe, it may be a signal to look elsewhere.
To make the C-suite shortlist, you need to go beyond your functional role and get broader experience. Every organization has a slightly different framework of expected experience, but I like to look at this through the lens of strategy and operations. You can be stronger at one of them, but you need to know how to manage both.
One CFO I know managed finance for a spin-off firm when it went public and then returned to the parent company in a corporate position. Another CFO led finance for multiple units so he could gain a breadth of knowledge across the business before becoming the corporate CFO. Likewise, I know numerous chief HR officers who have done tours in business, operations, HR, and elsewhere.
Rotating around the organization gives you a balance of experience. It also pressure-tests you in multiple environments and delivers a broader perspective. At Cisco, we prepare candidates for top slots by using executive assessments to identify strengths and development areas and by giving individuals strategic assignments to fill experience voids and provide greater exposure opportunities. For example, one talented executive’s 360-degree reviews indicated that she was underutilized as a leader. As a result, we shifted her into a larger role with higher visibility and gave her board exposure.
Competition for top slots is intense. Getting on the C-suite shortlist requires having a demonstrable impact on the entire company. There are countless ways I’ve seen executives raise their profile, but they fall into three categories.
Disruptors shake things up and make people a little uncomfortable in order to get an organization unstuck and drive change. With some companies still struggling to make the transformation to digital business, I’ve witnessed executives who’ve unlocked new ways of doing business, and leaped levels into a C-suite role as a result.
Turnaround leaders pick up the pieces and make things right when a business or function is failing to perform. These fixers are often shortlisted for the C-suite because of their talent for problem solving and working through ambiguity. One chief strategy officer I met got the job after bringing his company back from the brink with a number of savvy strategic alliances, essentially turning it around after the 2008 recession. Another fixer, a banking CFO, upped her organization’s analytics capability at a time when it was losing customers to online competitors.
Stabilizers understand what to preserve in the business and can give it the care and feeding it needs. One business leader I know from Cisco took over a mature business that was already doing well. She saw it as her job to keep the numbers stable and add growth where she could. She made a name for herself by understanding what was working in the business and leveraging the momentum for future growth.
No matter the specifics of how you stand out, demonstrate that you can get results in high-stakes environments.
This is something that all C-suite hopefuls need to get a handle on — fast. Even if you succeed in your functional or business roles over a long period, you won’t make it to the top team unless the cultural fit is right.
Most companies have a distinct culture. It would be unusual for any company to promote an executive into the C-suite who wasn’t a clear cultural fit. A particular CIO might thrive in a disruptive startup culture, for instance, but sink in a larger, more complex organization.
I’ve known several otherwise-solid candidates who not only lost their shot at a top spot but also ended up leaving the organization altogether because of a culture clash. It’s better for you to size up this element early and engage in career planning accordingly.
Formal C-suite advocates and senior sponsors are crucial, of course. But you need multiple advocates and allies at all levels of an organization in order to get to the C-suite. Do your 360-degree assessments indicate that you have solid support from employees across the organization, including your peers? I recall one manager who was universally admired by direct reports but widely distrusted by his management colleagues. (To his credit, he addressed the problem directly and got the relationships back on track.)
Truth be told, it’s difficult to rise to the top of any company without universal trust and support. Chuck Robbins had numerous advocates at every level of Cisco when he was named CEO. With so much support, one could say that he was the clear choice for the top spot. It was therefore no surprise that he was the board’s unanimous choice.
Your most important advocate or supporter, of course, is the CEO, or whomever you will report to. (If you are in line for a chief executive role yourself, then you are beholden to the board.) The best way to win over these and other highest-level decision makers? Bring personal experiences to the C-suite that complement and complete the wider top team. Interpersonal chemistry with other executives is important, of course, but chemistry at the top is also about making the top team better by what you bring to it.
State your ambition. If you don’t take a risk by making your objective known, no one else will. Put it out there that you want a C-suite position. If you gain a commitment from key leaders to help you gain the experience needed or to put a development plan in place, then you may be onto something.