Start laying the groundwork now.
If you’d like to see what it’s like to be a CEO, the Adecco Group, an HR company, is offering the chance to be CEO for a month. (No, you don’t really get to take over the company, but you do get paid $10,000 for the month, as well as numerous training opportunities and the chance to shadow the real CEO.)
But if you aspire to really grab the top job one day—or any C-level position, for that matter—it won’t happen because you won a contest. C-level hopefuls are rigorously vetted by executive recruiters, Board members, and other senior management executives. As you manage your career, whether you’re one rung or several away from the top job, here are four areas where you will be heavily screened:
Establish a management style, approach, and results
If you’re running the whole company or a significant part of it, you’ll be managing people. Do you have a coaching or directing style? Do people want to work with you and for you? Do you have a track record of developing people – i.e., how successful are the careers of your direct reports? At this level, a reference check will include people you have managed, so the executive recruiter can check your management record firsthand. If you’re years away from the top job, start building your management record now, and keep track of those references.
Build a record of measureable wins over time
In addition to people, the executive team also manages budgets and has direct impact on the bottom line – revenues, costs, profits or all three. What measurable impact on your company’s bottom line can be attributed to you? “Attributed to you” is the critical factor here. You need to be able to show it was your idea or your efforts or your relationships that engineered whatever wins you’re claiming. This is where job hoppers are at a serious disadvantage – the most substantive results will take time, and if you only have short stints in each role, it’s hard to notch those big wins. If you’re years away from the top job, remember this as you decide which jobs to take – you want to take roles where you can stay a while and get things done.
Staying power also enables you to demonstrate career progression. One example of progression is increasingly higher titles within a company (entry-level to area manager to VP/ regional manager, etc.). Based on the titles, you can infer that this person has regularly been expanding his/ her responsibilities. You can also see progression in scope of work and size of team and budgets given to this person – i.e., the title remains VP but the professional is given more people to manage, more dollars to control, more clients and projects, or more significant clients and projects. The most competitive executive candidates have momentum – progression at regular intervals, including recent growth. If all of your advancement occurred early in your career, you might be a high-potential who hasn’t lived up to the early hype. If you’re years away from the top job, you have to balance the critical need to notch big wins over time with maintaining your momentum. If you’re topped out where you are, even though you may be able to continue having an impact on your company, you still might have to jump for a bigger, more challenging opportunity.
Develop the vision thing
Finally, there are always multiple exemplary executive candidates – all with management chops, measurable results and career momentum. What separates the “merely” talented from the talented who get to lead is the vision for that leadership. What is your vision for the company? What would you do in the top job? Why is your vision the right plan, why is now the right time, and why are you the right person to get us there? Whether your next step is a C-level post or you’re years away, you can start honing your vision now. For your current company, what is its most significant opportunity or challenge? What would you do to get there? Do the same for your dream companies—and stay on top of the market and the latest developments, so you can take advantage of situations where your vision might be exactly the solution a company needs.