The Path to C-Level Jobs: Working Towards Executive Management

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C-level jobs require extensive experience, proven impact and a specific set of skills. If obtaining a c-level position is a personal career goal, there are several milestones you need to achieve along the way. But what is C-level, and how can you position yourself for these types of roles effectively? In this article, we will define what C-level executives are and how you can work towards a career in executive management, no matter your industry.

What does C-suite mean?

The C-suite, or “Chief” suite, are an organization’s team of top executives. C-suite executives tend to have extensive experience in the field, excellent leadership skills and strong management acumen. Yet the C-suite level definition tends to go beyond management alone. These executives typically serve as visionaries. Together, the members of the C-suite develop corporate strategies and guide their organizations toward high-level objectives.

How to work towards C-level roles

Networking within your industry, leveraging your knowledge and showcasing your expertise can help work towards the role you want in the C-suite. While earning a C-level position is difficult and only a small percentage of the population ends up in a chief executive role, there are several options you can pursue to work towards leveling up in your career:

  1. Gain industry and management experience
  2. Take the lead during company changes
  3. Offer consultative help
  4. Learn about becoming a board member
  5. Pursue entrepreneurship
  6. Find a mentor

1. Gain industry and management experience

Not all companies hire from within for the C-suite, but in many cases, high-level managers can compete for C-level management roles. To follow this path, you'll need to work aggressively for promotions and prove your leadership skills and industry expertise by making an impact on the company in every role you land.

In addition to developing your management and leadership skills, take the time to develop your own vision for corporate success. Seek out opportunities to highlight your thought leadership, from industry publications to personal blogs and social media sites. Positioning yourself as a thought leader with innovative ideas can help you stand out.

2. Take the lead during company changes

Mergers and acquisitions often lead to consolidation and restructuring, creating numerous opportunities for ambitious leaders to step into executive roles. Your current role may remain only temporarily after a merger or acquisition. If you prove that you can lead effectively, however, you could position yourself as a top candidate for a future C-suite job with the larger company.

3. Offer consultative help

Corporate consultants have the ability to gain experience at a wide range of companies in a single industry. The varied insight they gain enables them to position themselves as industry experts, which can be a stepping stone to joining the C-suite.

If you're considering the consultant route to the C-suite, plan your path carefully. Seek out strategies for gaining experience with the biggest names in your industry so you can leverage the connections later.

4. Learn about becoming a board member

Joining a corporation's board of directors as a president or vice president can give you unique decision-making, management and leadership experience. Consider becoming a board member to gain the high-level perspective you need to lead a company from the C-suite.

5. Start out as an entrepreneur

Startup founders can be strong candidates for the C-suite if they also place an emphasis on developing leadership and decision-making skills. If you're considering this path to a C-level role, make an effort to show how you will define corporate culture, navigate internal political issues and lead teams toward essential objectives.

6. Find a mentor

Asking a C-level executive that you admire to be your mentor can help you gain insights to grow in your career. They can also help you determine whether or not a C-level role would be the right fit for you. You should also ask them for honest feedback about your strengths and key areas you need to improve on to be a competitive candidate.

Common C-level executive positions

Small companies typically carry up to four C-level executives, while large corporations may have a C-suite with over a dozen roles. Here are some of the most common C-level executive positions and the job description for each.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

As the top executive for a public or private company, the CEO serves as the face of the business. In this position, you'll have the highest level of responsibility for all operations and major decisions.

In this role, you will take be responsible for communicating your strategic vision for the company to employees, customers and shareholders. You'll also need to lead the other executives, ensuring that everyone in the C-suite is aligned at all times.

Chief Operating Officer (COO)

In many organizations, the COO is second to the CEO and takes responsibility for overseeing daily business operations and developing effective policies and procedures. In this role, you'll typically work closely with the CEO and take responsibility for implementing top executive's strategies. Depending on the size of the C-suite, the COO may also oversee human resources, administration and payroll.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

As the top financial executive for the company, the CFO takes responsibility for everything from overseeing cash flow and approving annual budgets to handling reporting and compliance. Ultimately, the CFO is responsible for tracking and monitoring the company's profitability.

Since this role represents the ultimate achievement for finance professionals, you'll need more than standard leadership and management skills in this position. You'll also need high-level finance skills and experience, a thorough understanding of risk assessment and strong strategic vision.

Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

Depending on their needs, most companies employ either a CIO or a CTO to oversee the organization's information and technology infrastructure. To fulfill this role, you'll typically need experience in both business and information technology (IT), as you'll be responsible for aligning business and technology strategies. In addition to managing an IT team, you'll take charge of researching and implementing technologies that allow the company to meet its financial, marketing and product development goals.

Chief Data Officer (CDO)

While the CIO or CTO oversees technology, the CDO handles the data that the company collects and stores. Also known as the chief digital officer, this executive handles everything from data governance to digitization policies. In this role, you may also take responsibility for data compliance.

Chief Security Officer (CSO)

The CSO oversees all system and data security, often working closely with the CIO, CTO and CDO. In this role, you'll take responsibility for developing and implementing protocols to keep data and equipment secure. As the CSO, you should have extensive experience working in digital security. It should also be a priority to be updated on the latest trends and issues. You will also need a strong understanding of risk management so you can align the company's security and business strategies.

Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

As the top marketing executive, the CMO leads the organization's promotional and advertising efforts. In this role, you'll be responsible for developing and managing the company's brands, overseeing market research and signing off on comprehensive marketing plans.

Most CMOs manage teams of marketing professionals, and they work closely with public relations and sales teams. As a CMO, you'll need to have strong creative skills, understand how to plan and manage complex campaigns and serve as a strong leader for your team and the organization.

Chief Compliance Officer (CCO)

As the top legal executive for the company, the CCO oversees both internal and external compliance. To be successful in this role, you should have a legal background and a deep knowledge about compliance issues. In industries subject to regulation, you'll take responsibility for compliance with all federal and local requirements. You'll also oversee internal employee compliance with corporate policies, and you may advise other C-suite members about potential compliance issues.

Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)

While the COO may handle some aspects of human resources, the CHRO manages this area for larger organizations. In this role, you'll take responsibility for creating a talent acquisition strategy, encouraging employee development and planning for succession. You may also oversee and advise about human resources systems and technology.

Chief Experience Officer (CXO)

Although the CXO didn't exist in the C-suite a decade ago, this position is becoming increasingly important for large companies. The CXO takes responsibility for interactions between the company and its internal and external customers, ensuring that all exchanges are positive and reflect the organization's values and mission. As the CXO, you'll need strong relationship management skills, as you'll handle communications between the company and its external clients and internal employees.

Essential skillsfor C-suite executives

C-level executives are required to have a strong skill set related to their role. While these may differ depending on their title, here are several essential skills and qualities that commonly define C-suite roles.

  • Leadership skills

    Leadership skills are foundational for any management position—especially for those managing the entire organization. Naturally, executives must know how to lead effectively to guide both teams and companies toward challenging goals. Your leadership style should demonstrate that you're accountable, resilient and focused.

  • Management experience

    Strong C-suite candidates require competent teams to tackle jobs both big and small. To join the C-suite, you'll need to show that you can build and manage teams that can accomplish objectives with the resources at hand. To hone this skill, you'll generally need experience managing small groups of employees and entire departments or regions.

  • Decision-making skills

    Busy C-level executives constantly make major decisions. To excel in this role, chief officers must have effective decision-making strategies in place. From gathering data to analyzing results to weighing the options, leaders need to know how to choose and commit to courses of action as efficiently as possible.

  • Communication skills

    Chief officers share ideas, delegate tasks and make plans continually. To ensure that everything happens according to plan, C-level executives must have strong communication skills. Top managers should know how to communicate their thoughts clearly in writing and aloud.

  • Risk management

    To take on high-level leadership roles, C-suite executives must understand how to assess risks and when to take them. When strategies don't work out as planned, executives should know when to change track, how to take responsibility and how to be resilient when facing a substantial challenge.

  • Time management and work-life balance

    C-level executives tend to work hard with long hours. They also understand, however, that strong time management skills can help an organization run more efficiently and that maintaining a healthy work-life balance can help employees do their jobs more effectively.

    Naturally, burned out executives can rarely be good leaders or guide their teams in the way a fresh, focused director can. Excellent project management skills and a healthy approach to work can help you stand out as a strong candidate for the C-suite.

  • Visionary ideas
    To join the C-suite, it is necessary to display your innovative strategies and visionary ideas. While you may not want to give away your top strategies before you get the role, consistently presenting smaller ideas that make an impact can help you position yourself as a strategic thinker.

To make yourself stand out as a strong candidate, develop your executive skills, gain management experience and consider earning an advanced degree. The BLS anticipates that candidates with more education and experience will have the best chance at securing top executive jobs. Explore more management skills you'll need to develop as you work toward the C-suite role ideal for you.