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The winding road to chief executive roles

Posted in executive-roles

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Chief executive roles are some of the most prized positions in any organisation, and getting your name on the door of the CEO’s office is a long-term ambition for many people.

But how you get there can be a very non-linear process. It’s always been a combination of many different factors, such as leadership ability, intelligence, a willingness to work hard, and often blind luck.

However, modern-day companies are increasingly looking for CEOs to have experience in multiple different departments, and you’ll often find chief executive roles occupied by former chief information officers or chief financial officers.

In some organisations the CIO or CFO is on equal footing with the CEO when it comes to expressing opinions around the boardroom table.

But by experiencing more than one management role in different departments, you improve your odds of getting into the C-suite overall.

Is ‘lateral promotion’ good or bad?

Moving into a different department at the same level of seniority is often thought of as ‘lateral promotion’ – a move sideways rather than up the hierarchy.

Research shows that this can increase your chances of eventually making CEO. However, too much lateral movement is not always a good thing.

Move to a completely different company and the evidence shows that you don’t help your chances, although on average you also don’t hurt them either.

But switch to an entirely different industry and you’re less likely to make it to CEO, so try to choose your sector early in your career and stick to it if you’re targeting executive roles as your long-term ambition.

Cutting corners to race to the C-suite

Increasingly, organisations seeking to capitalise on talented candidates are offering hybrid roles that make good use of your capabilities in multiple disciplines at once.

For example, you might work in the IT department but have significant financial responsibilities, giving your employer a single source for information about IT budgets and spending.

This kind of role is relatively rare, but if you’re aiming for executive roles in the future, middle-management hybrid roles are one way to show your aptitude in multiple areas at once, potentially removing the need for lateral promotion later on.

Right skills, right time

Surprisingly, the CEO isn’t always the individual with the best skills in sales or marketing, product innovation, technology or otherwise.

Instead, it’s about being the person with the best total capability across all of those areas. If you’re pursuing executive roles within your existing company, look at the current executives for inspiration when trying to fill in any gaps on your CV.

Covering many different disciplines to a good level – even if not the highest level – means you’re well equipped to step into any senior-level role that becomes available, especially if nobody else in your organisation has the skills to step up.

Often this is how senior execs find themselves in the executive roles they’ve been chasing throughout their career – by being in the right place, at the right time, with a varied skill set.