The One Skill You Need to Reach the C-Suite

There are only a limited number of corner offices; how can you demonstrate you’re the person to occupy one?

In corporate America, what does it take to move from the senior ranks to the top of the org chart?

There are many bright, ambitious people in the workforce, but simple mathematics dictates that only a few will ever reach the C-suite. What’s the key skill you need to master if your career goals are focused at that level?

The secret, experts told Ladders, is to extend the skills you’ve honed as a functional specialist into a position of general leadership across disciplines.

Even for the best senior specialist, landing a job as a general manager with full profit-and-loss responsibility for a discrete business, or even a top functional job in the C-suite, is a hard sell; it requires that you demonstrate skills that may have been only peripheral to your success up to that point, according to Michael Watkins, a former Harvard Business School professor and expert on corporate leadership who runs Genesis Advisers LLC, a consultancy that advises companies and executives on how to develop and switch to new top executives.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem,” Michael Watkins said. “In order to be promoted to a general- management position you have to demonstrate strategic thinking, but the only way you can demonstrate strategic thinking is to be a general manager.”

It takes more than just the ability to handle strategy, however, and the people who decide who will or won’t get a shot at the big jobs realize that, according to Susan Cramm, founder of Valuedance, a career coaching and management consultancy for IT professionals.

The buck stops here

“When you move into a general-management job, it’s different because it’s not you and everyone with your same skills anymore; it’s you all alone,” Cramm said. “There’s no longer anyone around who’s adjudicating conflicts or setting strategy. You do that, and 99 percent of your success depends on relationships with people from other areas.”

Companies with a long history and formal programs to train the next generation of leaders make sure candidates work on cross-functional teams to build that exposure and the experience of setting and executing strategies.

Companies without that structure rely on people who have the initiative to build that kind of resume on their own, which means convincing your bosses and their bosses that it’s a good investment to put you in jobs with different specialties and responsibilities, Cramm said.

In 1994 Cramm did that by shifting from a position as CIO of Pepsi’s Taco Bell Corp. to one as CFO at Chevy’s Mexican Restaurants – another Pepsi property – to develop the finance and management experience she felt was lacking in her experience as a CIO.

Michael Watkins advocates developing a cross-functional fluency.

“Each of those specialties has its own language. How can you identify a good finance person if you have to hire one, but you came up through marketing?”

It’s perfectly reasonable to go to your boss or to HR and say you see yourself as a future general manager and ask about training programs or whether you can join cross-functional teams, Michael Watkins said.

But even if you’re confident in your abilities, you probably won’t get a credible shot at a top-level job if you haven’t been consciously building up your qualifications for years. You can’t make that kind of leap without the experience, credentials, personal networks and track record that would make you credible, according to Ed McGlynn, managing director of Financial Recruiters LLC and a former senior vice president at Lehman Brothers.

People who perform well as top-level executives, general managers, directors and in other positions that carry great responsibility are those who can demonstrate extraordinary creativity, initiative and dedication – not necessarily those whose qualifications on paper help them survive a rigorous filtering-out process, according to job-market analyses from executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

So getting a director, C-suite or general-manager job involves getting yourself noticed personally by the hiring manager – usually through in-person networking, references from personal contacts or outstanding qualifications. Prep work can include experience on executive committees, lead roles on high-profile strategic projects, or demonstration of a rare skill or knowledge of particular value to the company, according to Elisabeth Marx, a psychologist who researches the qualifications that help women and minorities achieve executive roles and a partner in the European division of Heidrick & Struggles.

Building bridges

The higher the level of the hire, the greater the risk the company is assuming, according to William Bielby, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading expert on racial and gender bias in the workplace.

As the stakes and the competition increase, hiring decisions are based increasingly on subjective criteria, Bielby said, such as how comfortable the CEO feels with a CFO candidate or how articulate and down-to-earth a CIO is in person, rather than a strict matching of a candidate’s qualifications against a list of job requirements.

“People have to essentially be sponsored into the position where they’re considered for top management jobs, which means more exposure to top managers and being familiar to them,” Valuedance’s Cramm concurred. “If you’re known as someone who has great functional skills but is not seen as a great manager – especially if they’re not from sales or marketing, where a lot of the leaders come from – you may have to leave the organization or work in different functional roles to expand that.”

Another good tactic that builds both experience and support: Building alliances with managers from other functional areas who can put in a good word for you to their bosses or get you onto project teams that show your abilities well.

“People are looking for leadership abilities, and building that kind of lateral influence is a good way to demonstrate that, Cramm said.

But without top managers seeing you and realizing your value, it’s hard even to get a shot at the top jobs, McGlynn said.

Coming in from outside is even tougher, according to Russell Watkins, principal of recruiting agency Executive Search Professionals.

“Right now there are very few companies looking for executives; most have their executive teams in place, and they’re only looking for individual contributors,” Russell Watkins said. “They’re scrutinizing every single thing about a candidate to make sure it’s the right fit; they want to be really sure it’s right for the people they’ll be working for and the people who work for them.”

If your ambition extends to the top of the org chart, it’s not too late to try to build the kind of resume that could make you a credible candidate, though.

“You can seek out someone who wants to learn about other functions or range farther and do some high-level board work at charities or nonprofits outside your organization. That kind of activity gives you a lot of experience in working with a board and making things happen in a non-structured environment, and it says a lot about you,” Russell Watkins said.

“A lot of what we’re talking about is signaling,” he said. “You have to be attending the corporate events, getting to know the senior leadership any way you can.”