Many employees dream about climbing the corporate ladder. Suzanne Ogle thinks most people’s career paths look more like a jungle gym.
“There isn’t usually a direct path from an entry-level position to the head of the company,” says Ogle, president and CEO of Southern Gas Association in Dallas. “You’ll need to learn lots of different skills, and it will be a long haul. It can take decades to reach a leadership position.”
Making it from one level to the next might require a multifaceted approach that includes education, training, networking and volunteering within your company, in addition to playing to the strengths in your personality, Ogle says.
There are myriad steps that experienced executives say will help professionals reach the C-suite. Here is what Ogle and other leaders suggest.
1. How to get into the C-Suite: Don’t just do your job.
No matter what job you have, you should look to transform it, says Adam Bryant, senior managing director of The ExCo Group executive coaching firm in New York City, founder of the Corner Office interview series in The New York Times and author of several books on executive leadership. “Don’t just fulfill expectations,” he adds. “Build a track record of finding ways to optimize the company and make it more efficient.”
2. Network strategically.
When Shawn M. Graham moved to Atlanta, she knew she had the tools and the work ethic to further her career, but she wanted to align herself with the right people. She had grown up in New York’s inner city and was proud of her “grind” and determination. “I’d notice the people in the room that everyone wants to meet,” says Graham, now CFO and interim CEO of the National Black MBA Association. “I knew from my childhood how important it is to know who to stay away from and who to get to be friends with.” Networking isn’t just about showing up, she adds, although being visible is important: “It’s about reciprocity. I ask people for advice, but I also ask them what I can do for them.”
3. Find a good mentor or mentors.
Mentors and coaches are extremely important to career success, Bryant says. “It’s human nature to have blind spots about yourself, so you need someone to stop the conversation. For example, you may think of yourself as collaborative, but you need to know that others [may] see you as dictatorial.”
4. Be observant.
Graham consistently observes businesspeople and other leaders she admires so she can learn from them and identify the characteristics that make them successful. “I’d even watch people’s body language and listen to how they communicate with other people,” Graham says. “Now, I work hard to pass on my skills and knowledge by mentoring other people.”
5. Nurture your communication style.
One trait shared by the 1,000 or more senior leaders Bryant interviewed throughout his career is good communication skills. “CEOs must be able to simplify complexity,” Bryant says. “A leader needs to be able to stand up in front of a group and answer their questions the way parents answer kids in the back seat. They want to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.” Bryant recommends practicing distilling complex topics into simpler answers by taking a seven-page memo and turning it into a one-page memo or by cutting a presentation deck in half.
6. Broaden your work experience.
Another trait that leaders share is making the most of whatever path they’re on, Bryant says. “Think of your life like a towel soaking up water and then taking that towel and wringing out every drop of your own experience,” Bryant says. “Good leaders are constantly observing and processing lessons everywhere around them.” Volunteer for committees and special projects within your company to learn and build relationships with colleagues and mentors, Bryant suggests.
7. Learn continuously.
Graham encourages people to pursue an MBA, which is “phenomenal” for opening doors and learning beyond book knowledge. But she says all kinds of education and experience can lead to the C-suite: “Keep learning through reading and listening to others. This is especially important today with technology changing our lives and businesses so quickly.”
While it may be tempting to focus entirely on your career and your personal life, Ogle and Graham both recommend getting involved in your community. Graham, who holds several nonprofit board positions and served a two-year term on the City of Atlanta Small Business Advisory Council, says volunteer work is a great way to expand your network and learn from other volunteers. “I feel an obligation to help others in my community, and I enjoy mentoring people,” Graham says. “People are often surprised when I answer their messages on LinkedIn or serve people at the Salvation Army, but I want to help them as much as my mentors helped me.”
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