Why was Chuck Robbins both a surprising successor and the obvious choice when he was named CEO of Cisco? How did a leadership opportunity in London put Edith Cooper on track to become senior director at Goldman Sachs? What motivated Yoky Matsuoka to return to Nest as CTO after a tenure away? Each made strategic career decisions that put them on the path to the top team. These executives, and many others like them whom I interviewed, drew on specific assets that helped them to stand out as candidates during an active C-suite succession.
Over the course of my career, I’ve coached hundreds of executives at Cisco and elsewhere who aspired to serve on the top team. And many found their path and succeeded. One chief strategy officer (CSO) I know accepted the top strategy job after bringing his company back from the brink following the 2008 recession. Another, a banking chief financial officer (CFO), relinquished a coveted senior role at a Fortune 100 firm to accept the top finance job at a much smaller organization. Still another, now a young chief human resources officer (CHRO), managed to reinvent himself several times over until he was exactly what the CEO was looking for when she needed to unveil a new talent strategy. Each of these executives expertly managed their careers while also remaining vigilant and scanning for emerging opportunities.
So what are the most relevant attributes that CEOs, boards, and executive recruiters look for as they identify candidates for the top team?
1. Manage Your Executive Temperament
Landing on the C-suite short list requires the bold moves and confident displays of acumen that arguably typify executive temperament. Yet, once you are under imminent consideration, it will be just as important to demonstrate that your ego is in check.
“Knowing when to wield power is one part of serving as a leader—but it is just one of many facets. In fact, leaders get selected out when their need for power gets too high,” according to Dan Ciampa, advisor to boards and chief executives, and a former CEO himself.
With capabilities like collaboration and influence becoming ever more important for leaders, arrogance and power plays are common derailers during the final climb to the top team and beyond.
2. Focus on Change and Reinvention
Organizational complexity has increased everywhere as companies navigate fast-changing global markets, fend off insurgent competitors, and rely on social media and other disruptive and social technologies. These new realities require different ways of thinking. As a result, organizations are rewarding leaders who can find order in the chaos, understand emerging business models, and are wired for change. As such, a focus on change and reinvention was a common theme in my research, and it will be a decisive topic as you interview for a specific role. On one hand, you need to show that you value the current corporate culture; on the other hand, you must have a vision to drive change, growth, and transformation. Similarly, you need to show that you have a lifelong love of learning and the ability to unlearn the things that no longer apply.
3. Have a Knack for Communication
Every word uttered or emailed by a top executive draws instant actions and reactions. One of the most urgent skills expected of you, then, is the ability to convey authenticity and persuasively communicate vision and decisions. Whether to employees, investors, customers, or board members, you must show that you can connect consistently, embody the values of the organization, and listen as often as you speak.
4. Model Resilience
Modeling resilience is a requisite requirement for the C-suite.
One of the CEOs in my study told me that exhibiting resilience is perhaps more important for top executives than big ideas, because even the best of plans are likely to be revisited and adjusted along the way. Indeed, the ability to remain flexible and course correct is something that recruiters and boards look for in rising executives. As part of this, you should be able to share stories that illustrate how you have turned failure and adversity into something positive. Instead of focusing on erroneous assumptions or missed opportunities, you need to show that you are willing to adjust your vision and pivot. Additionally, you must model resilient behavior to the rest of the organization and sell your “Plan B” to investors and partners.
5. Be Strategic in Ideas and Execution
You need to show that you can make the critical turn from being a functional expert to managing strategy on a global scale.
Wharton School professor Michael Useem put it this way: “Executives need to think holistically about the entire division or operation, and ultimately the entire enterprise.” He admits that this is easier said than done. “You’re representing your particular ‘C’ in the C-suite—chief of marketing, or whatever it may be—but then unequivocally you also must have the big picture and think strategically about the enterprise.”
This means translating ideas into actions that impact your organization and C-suite area.
6. Convey Emotional Intelligence
When Daniel Goleman popularized the term “emotional intelligence” in Harvard Business Review in 1998, he made the point that although “IQ and technical skills…are the entry-level requirements” for leaders, “emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” Since then, emotional intelligence has only grown in prominence as a tenant of leadership. To reach the top team, then, you will need to engage employees of vastly differing demographics who want to work in new ways, communicate transparently, collaborate openly, and find more meaning in their work.
7. Master Building a Team
Loners seldom reach the C-suite. As hierarchy becomes less relevant and organizational structures become flat or more matrixed, top-team candidates are judged based on their ability to integrate multiple perspectives as opposed to acting solely on their own beliefs. Similarly, they must stop and consider their impending slot on the top team and be able to articulate what they bring that will make the C-suite stronger.
Keeping these seven attributes in mind as you manage your career will help you rise above the rest.
Adapted from Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It to the Top, by Cassandra Frangos, copyright 2018. Reprinted by permission of Wharton Digital Press.