Rising to the C-Suite: Key Steps to Accelerate the Transition

fist rising up along with words related to C suite roles

By Jon Kaupla, Executive Director, Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development

I’ve coached numerous leaders who aspired to rise to the C-Suite and obtain an executive role at their organizations. Through this work I’ve observed similar approaches that have led to successful outcomes for many leaders. These approaches require diligence, consistency, and a plan.

First, let’s step back and define exactly what I mean by “C-Suite.” Simply put, the C-Suite comprises all the executive leaders that run a company/organization. Each C-Suite is unique to that organization. While most organizations have a CEO and a CFO, the other roles depend on the industry, business model, and/or operations of the organization. In my experience, the most common C-Suite roles include:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)
  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
  • Chief Operations Officer (COO)
  • Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)

Regardless of the C-Suite role, each leader who aspires to the C-Suite must be intentional with their plan of development, growth, and advancement.

Step 1: Development Plan

The first step in the approach is to build a development plan that includes building skills, experience, and relationships that will be critical success factors in the C-Suite. In building this plan, seek council from experienced executive leaders who have risen to the C-Suite. These should also be leaders who you admire and respect. It is helpful to ensure your direct supervisor/leader is aware, and supportive, of your development plan.

Once your development plan is complete, be diligent in completing the goals outlined within your plan. And, whenever possible, exceed the goals to demonstrate your ability to be successful in the C-Suite.

Step 2: Develop Strategic Thinking

The second step is to find opportunities to demonstrate strategic thinking. Henry Mintzberg, the well-known business and management researcher and author says that strategic thinking is more about synthesis (i.e., “connecting the dots”) than analysis (i.e., “finding the dots”).

It is about “capturing what the manager learns from all sources (both the soft insights from their personal experiences and the experiences of others throughout the organization and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that the business should pursue.”

For many functional leaders (those who lead a particular functional area or department within an organization), shifting from leading a function or being a functional manager to leading a business is a challenging shift.

The analogy we use at CPED is that of a captain of a ship versus the naval architect who designed the ship.

The captain is charged with leading the day-to-day management of the ship. They must understand all aspects of the operations of the ship.

The naval architect, on the other hand, must look at many aspects of the design of ships – using information to decide on the size, shape, materials, and speed of the ship. They must also anticipate the forces each ship will encounter on their voyages to ensure their design allows the ship to withstand them.

The architect must synthesize many data points, past performance of vessels, hopes/dreams of the vessel they are designing, etc. and turn this learning into a vision of a new, never seen, high-performing and safe ship.

The architect is an example of strategic thinking.

Step 3: Seek Opportunities for Growth

The third step is to seek opportunities to upskill, network, and explore. Many development opportunities will assist with all three of these things.

For example, programs such as CPED’s Transition to Executive Management provide the opportunity to upskill via expert faculty, experienced business executives, and coaches. These types of programs also provide opportunities to network with other aspiring C-Suite executives and explore opportunities across many industries.

Step 4: Envision the Future

The final step is to engage in self-reflection and imagine yourself in a C-Suite role. This helps clarify what you’re willing to do and sacrifice in that role. Many leaders who rise to the C-Suite realize that it is an isolated and lonely place. You can no longer commiserate with peers as they have now become your direct reports.

It is challenging to find others who will be honest and forthright with you about what is going well and what needs improvement. You are now 100% accountable – you’re at the top and responsible for anything that goes awry under your leadership.

Some C-Suite leaders say their time is no longer theirs. Are you ready to impact your personal life, significant others, family, etc.?

Of course, there are many rewards to rising to the C-Suite. You can lead a team and an organization forward. You can cast a new vision and help mobilize teams to achieve this vision. You can completely shift the culture and increase engagement, retention, and performance of the organization. And you can leave a legacy of a stronger organization and team.

If you’re ready to take the first step in your path to the C Suite, CPED offers several C Suite professional development programs to help you achieve your goals.

Jon Kaupla is the executive director of the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development. He has over 18 years of human resources experience with organizations ranging from non-profits to Fortune 500 companies. Jon has led human resources strategy in the healthcare, financial services, marketing, and retail industries. Jon has a Bachelor of Science in psychology and social work from Florida State University and a Master of Arts in education from Alverno College.