Every career is unique. Each executive has different strengths and weaknesses. Unexpected opportunities and obstacles arise – at work and at home – that affect how a career evolves. Yet across those differences, there are general types of knowledge and experiences that all executives need to succeed in the C-suite.
Our goal here, based on a review of existing models and our own interviews and experiences, is to demystify executive development and convey it in an easy-to-understand manner. Below, we outline four types of development and the learning paths required by each one – knowing that within each type, it can take years, even decades, to build out the needed knowledge and experience. But building them all out over time is what matters. General management is just that – it’s general. It requires a wide array of knowledge and capabilities.
Organizations, at their core, are made up of groups of people. That means that, first and foremost, senior executives manage and then lead people. Early in a career this means mastering the basics of managing yourself, including building strong working relationships with your bosses and peers. It’s all about learning how to be a dependable co-worker – doing what you say you will, when you say you will, at a high quality, with no surprises. Later you move to managing subordinates, building and coaching teams and selecting and developing the talent to make those teams effective. In the process, you learn how to hire and fire people, hopefully with both clarity and compassion. Next is managing a substantive piece of an organization and overseeing a team of people who manage their own teams of people; over time, those teams get bigger. As the types of people whom you manage get more senior, how you coach them changes from the basics of doing a job well to how they build their own teams, create business strategies and become good developers of talent.
Successful business leaders build profitable firms. As an aspiring C-suite job holder, you need to gain exposure and eventually mastery in a core business function and learn about all the other functions (e.g., sales, marketing, operations, finance) as well. Next, you need to learn how to bring functions together to manage profits for a specific product or group of products and maintain and grow market share; and, if you aspire to be a functional leader, to bring the various disciplines within your function together in ways that support key business goals. Finally, you learn how to take an enterprise-level view – assessing enterprise-wide growth and profitability, across multiple product lines and businesses. At the most senior levels, executives assess investment and people risks, improve margins by thoughtfully controlling costs, and allocate capital to grow the most promising products and business lines over time.
Successful executives are well-served early on by fostering a curiosity for how organizations and markets develop over time – learning to see what they do at work each day in a broader context. Strategic thinking is all about translating details into bigger picture implications and decisions that move teams and organizations forward, rather than simply maintaining the status quo. The core of strategic thinking in the C-suite centers around competitive strategy; that is, how a firm or business unit positions itself relative to its competitors, what differentiates it and allows it to attract customers and thrive. Reduced options for differentiation usually mean reduced opportunities for profit. To create profits and long-term value, a company’s senior executives shape and reshape their organizations over time through mergers, acquisitions, start-ups and spin-offs. In this shaping work, organizational structure is a key lever, combined with incentives, that executives have for implementing new strategies and the change required to support them. This means that gaining perspective and experience in how to (re)design jobs, then teams, and later business units and seeing how those decisions influence culture, politics and performance lies at the heart of developing the strategic thinking needed in the C-suite.
All business is enacted through human relationships, embedded within other relationships, that are often referred to as networks. Building relationships starts at the beginning of a career by staying in touch with college friends and connecting with new colleagues at work. Later it expands to include contacts made in different parts of a company and new colleagues or friends of colleagues who work at other companies in your industry or your city. The web grows over time, across functions, geographies and industries, as do the interpersonal skills required to manage all of these relationships. Throughout, building your reputation as a trustworthy and value-add colleague or connection is key. As you move toward the highest levels, interactions with the C-suite, board members, and even headhunters take on a unique character. Here interactions become as much about demeanor as they do about substance. People are watching to see if you can master the “smoothness” and low drama required in many C-suites. Body language, nuance, and question-asking take on a whole new character.
Putting it all together
Developing across all four areas during the first 25 years of a career is challenging, but important. Significant gaps in any area can lead to uneven development and make succession into and success in the C-suite less likely. Getting it right requires some luck in landing the right array of experiences at the right times and in roughly the right order. It also requires strong coaching and feedback to correct mistakes early — before they become problematic in ways that are hard to fix. (Nobody makes it to the C-suite without feedback!) Finally, as you progress toward and into upper middle management, you need someone, or a group of people, above you to be working proactively to fill in any of your gaps.
By helping aspiring executives understand the full array of skills and experiences required to land a C-suite role and succeed there, we hope more promising men and women can achieve the learning and development they need on the road the C-suite.