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Five Skills You Need To Reach The C-Suite

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Two misconceptions really get in the way of career progress for mid-level professionals.

One is believing that keeping your head down and doing good work will get you promoted. The other is that you’ll get feedback from your boss about skills you should be developing in order to advance. The first—doing good work in your current job–is really just the minimum required to even be in the running for a senior-level position, says John Beeson, owner of the management consulting firm Beeson Consulting in Manhattan, which specializes in executive coaching and assessment, as well as succession planning. And as for performance reviews, says Beeson, “They review performance in your current job, not the skills you need to advance. Your boss may not know the factors that senior-level decisions makers use to promote someone to the kinds of positions to which you’re aspiring.”

So how to get promoted to the top? Beeson wrote the book on that: “The Unwritten Rules: The 6 Skills You Need To Get Promoted To The Executive Level.” He says for those with a definite career trajectory in mind–whether that’s to be a vice president within a year or move from an account executive to account manager—the end game is generally the C-suite. And to get there, he’s compiled a list of the skills mid-career professionals need to develop–and demonstrate-in order to get tapped for senior leadership and strategy positions.

Beeson had extensive, off-the-record conversations with senior executives involved in making C- level promotional decisions and found that although they represented a wide range of industries, “the selection factors they pointed to were actually quite similar.”

Here five skills and abilities he identified as necessary to move into the executive ranks of most organizations:

  1. You can think strategically and create a sense of direction for an organization.

You need to show your ability to think strategically as opposed to tactically. Corporations have lots of task forces and group projects; if you can get yourself staffed on a major cross-functional project with a big strategic component, that will help your career in many ways. You’re working on something with a strategic context, people see you thinking and contributing strategically and you will likely have the chance to present your accomplishments to upper management.

  1. You surround yourself with talent and develop talent.

Demonstrate your ability to build a strong management team and surround yourself with talent. A lot of people think this is akin to team building, but the emphasis should actually be on talent. You should be continually upgrading talent for a couple of reasons. One is that this is what senior leaders do—they build strength in their management teams. Without that, they wouldn’t have the time or bandwidth to think strategically, identify innovations and work with peers to get things done across the organization.

  1. You lead innovation and manage change.

Identify opportunities for quantum leap changes. These are not continuous-improvement changes that move the needle by two or three percent, these are game-changing innovations you lead and implement and people almost anywhere in an organization have the ability to do this. Sure, if you’re at a mid-level, you are probably not going to push through a fundamental redesign of plant manufacturing. But let’s say you work in finance and one big pain point is getting signature approvals for capital expenditures. Maybe it takes month to get an approval through the corporate bureaucracy. If you can come up with a way to cut the time to get approvals for projects by 25 percent, that will have a significant impact. It’s something an enterprising person at the mid-level of an organization can do and it will get them noticed.

  1. You’re able to manage laterally.

You need to demonstrate that you can get things accomplished across the organization and by working with and through people, many of whom you may not have direct authority over. It’s vitally important to show you can work with peers to get things done across organizational boundaries, because senior executives not only manage teams and organizations, they also influence peers and build support across the company for their initiatives. A lot of executives have a hyper-competitive nature and that becomes a limiting factor; it’s far more important to be collaborative.

  1. You have executive presence.

This is more than a good suit and a firm handshake. Executive presence means you project self-confidence and are able to step up and handle difficult and unpredictable issues. Those with executive presence are prepared to deal with conflict rather than avoiding it, hoping to learn something in the process.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.