Top-tier leaders apply every individual contribution to tally the company’s final, sum-total impact on the field at large. This level of power isn’t easy to earn, but if you have what it takes to be C-suite material, it means you stand to gain one of the most lucrative, challenging, and interesting careers in an organization.
The following guide helps define that elusive quality—executive presence—and offers concrete advice on how to decide if an executive role is right for you.
5 Defining Qualities of an Executive Leader
1. Strategic Thinking
The difference between a director and a chief financial officer (CFO) is their scale of thought. The director oversees the accounting operations and tax compliance, implements day-to-day processes, and manages a team. The CFO, on the other hand, is the sole person responsible for keeping the business solvent. They manage the business’s financial risk, generate new revenue streams, broker financial agreements, and invest in the business’s future. A CFO defines a financial strategy, whereas a department head figures out how to implement it.
Both roles are essential, but for executive leaders, business acumen is more imperative than technical mastery.
2. Powerful Professional Network
A powerful social network is an executive’s chief asset. When businesses acquire a new leader, it’s generally understood they also expect to gain new allies in the industry. Executives represent an extension of their company and are responsible for developing partnerships. As such, having a strong reputation among your colleagues will help you advance to the C-suite. Communication skills can facilitate your path there.
To prepare for an executive role, cultivate authentic connections with your colleagues and business associates. Attend industry events, volunteer for nonprofits, join a board of directors, and follow up with old contacts to sustain your relationships with them.
Here’s why every leader should join a board of directors before advancing to a C-suite position
3. Personal Accountability
The leaders who earn the most respect hold themselves to higher standards, not just in the professional realm but also by behaving ethically in and outside the boardroom. Take, for example, Sylvia Metayer, the CEO of Sodexo Corporate Services Worldwide, who calls herself a “servant leader” in an interview with Inc.
According to Metayer, she’s accountable to her employees for creating an environment in which they can thrive. To increase employee satisfaction, Sodexo identifies the staff’s key priorities, an agenda for improving conditions, and milestones for making progress toward these goals. In the interest of transparency, Metayer publishes the results of her work and shares the report with employees and stakeholders every year.
Research proves social corporate responsibility isn’t an exception to the rule or a buzzword from business school. According to the 2020 World’s Most Ethical Companies report (The Ethisphere® Institute), ethics are good for business and can raise a company’s bottom line. The Ethisphere demonstrates organizations with the largest profit margins also have the following key qualities:
- An ethics and compliance program
- Principled work culture
- Volunteer and activism initiatives
- Upstanding leadership board
- Clear ethical governance
Considering the growing interest in sustainability, ethics, and advancing the common good, it makes sense for executive recruiters to look for personal accountability and virtue as two of the most important qualities in a leader.
Once you reach the metaphorical Arcadian wonderland that is the C-suite, don’t lose your hard-earned perspective from the lower tiers of business hierarchy. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, one of the defining traits of a successful leader is their ability to understand and support the overall company culture. Even if you no longer work alongside employees on the frontline, try to appreciate what’s important to them and how they interact with the various branches of your organization.
C-suite leaders also need to expand their view to include the market around them. Know what new technology or legislation is on the brink of transforming the industry—and how your business can take the helm during periods of disruption.
5. Faith in Your Business and Colleagues
If you’re going to lead an organization with authority and conviction, you need to embrace its mission. Before joining the Board, make sure you understand the business, believe it serves an essential purpose, and truly support their vision.
Since you’ll also work closely with other members of the executive team, it’s also prudent to reflect on your feelings toward them. Do you respect these leaders and trust them to act in the best interest of the company? What about society as a whole?
For you to enjoy any significant time in the C-suite, you need to like your business partners and believe you’re making a positive difference through your work.
Making the Transition From Senior Management to C-Suite Executive
The highest level in an organization demands more than “average” or “ordinary.” If you want to rise to the C-suite, never let a colleague accuse you of coasting. Becoming an executive takes tremendous work, long hours, and a rare combination of innate talent and skill. If you want to secure a coveted position in the C-suite, an executive coach can help you create a plan and set it into motion.
When should you start working with an executive coach? Here’s advice from an expert.