In Pursuit of Profession: The road to the C-suite


Whether we’re just starting out in our first career or we are nearing retirement after several careers, we all have at one point or another dreamed of being the boss, or at least making it to one of the corner offices that make up the infamous “C-suite,” where the most senior level officers of an organization maintain their offices. And while there is no uniform path to the top, it seems that nowadays the more detours a person takes in their climb, the better. According to a recent LinkedIn study of 459,000 one-time management consultants, having experience in at least one additional area of a business improved a worker’s odds of becoming a senior executive as much as three years of extra experience did. If a worked gained experience in four different business areas, it had almost the same impact on their odds as getting an MBA from a top-five program.

So, are these twists and turns to the top a relatively new phenomenon? And if so, what’s driving the change? And if we’re turning some kind of corner where we need a new breed of C-suite executives, how can we train ourselves to become that person no matter where we are in our work lives? To answer these questions and gain more insight on the climb to the top, I talked to Darien George, managing partner at Mackenzie Eason, an executive search and talent management firm that has offices in Dallas and Fort Worth.

Can’t get to the “C” without the “E”

George agrees with the LinkedIn study’s findings that experience in different aspects of the business is important, but it isn’t as simple as plugging in an engineer into the HR department for a few months to get a better handle on how people get hired. “Experience is one of the core foundations in our talent management process, and one of the components of how to reproduce talent at the senior executive level,” said George. “More than 70 percent of someone’s ability to move up in their career is reflected in learning through experiences. Although, to simply state as this study does that one experience in an additional area might be too simplified; you wouldn’t move a VP of sales into accounting just for experience. Experiences will differ for each person and organization, ranging from special projects, different locations (states, countries or even divisions), to new jobs or assignments.”

The LinkedIn study also touched on the notion that working in four different business aspects had the same impact as getting an MBA from a top program. Again, George agreed with that notion as well, but also mentioned one caveat. “Our model shows that career growth follows the 70/20/10 model: 70 percent comes from experiences, 20 percent from feedback and coaching, and 10 percent from formal training. Having an MBA doesn’t mean you have the experience needed to be in the C-suite. It means you have the raw materials such as intellect, drive and personality, but that doesn’t equate to experience. Depth of experience plus broad experience leads to career growth,” George said.

The evolution of senior executives

In order to get to the C-suite, one must understand the changing role of senior executives in today’s organizations. While professions have become more specialized over time – doctors used to provide every aspect of health care from birth to death; nowadays there are specialists for every part of the body – senior executives, especially CEOs, need to have the kind of talent that can manage all of these specialists, which can be a unique skill set depending on the industry. “C-suite and top level jobs are coveted and require a unique set of skills, raw materials and experiences to reach. Only a small percentage of people will have all three necessary components to potentially move into a top-level role. Unfortunately, we see in some organizations people in roles who do not possess the necessary components. They are in those positions because the organization has failed to have a talent philosophy that should put the highest potential person in that role.

“From a talent perspective, many CEOs will have some of the same general skill sets, but not all CEOs are a fit across industries. There are two different things you are dealing with when talking about the fit of a CEO or any person within an organization: Do they have the experiences for the role and industry, and are they a fit for the company’s culture, vision and core values? Companies often change faster than people can change,” said George.

The everyman’s guide to the C-suite

No matter where you are in your work life, if getting to the C-suite is your goal, then George had some worthy advice. For high school grads, it’s all about figuring out what you love to do. “I would tell [them] to test to see what their innate strengths are to help them figure out what they want to major in during college and to help find a career they would love. If you don’t love your core field, then you most likely will fail at it or change careers at some point,” said George. For recent college grads, it’s about going deep. “Recent college grads should focus on getting as much deep experience as possible,” George said. “Too many college grads switch jobs/careers without getting depth of experience. You must have depth of experience before you get breadth of experience.”

For those of us in the middle of our work lives, it’s time to go outside our boxes and gain new experience. “The mid-career people need to identify and plan where to get their next experience. Most have focused on one area and don’t have the breadth of experience to move to the top. Start by identifying the different experiences that the top person in their field has and come up with an experience map. For instance, chief human resources officers will have experience in talent management, talent acquisition, and compensation and HR business partner on technical aspects as well as strategic. They will have led one or multiple functions in a variety of settings. Great organizations that want to develop their talent should have these for their top positions,” said George.

Finally, if you’ve changed careers a few times and think that there’s no way to get to a corner office with your resume, take heart. Changing careers is commonplace these days. If you play it right, it could be a strength, not a weakness, in your quest for the brass ring. “If someone is changing careers the main thing they should focus on is transitioning into a role that still utilizes what they have already learned from their previous career,” George said. “Use your career change as a step into something, eventually, that is a much larger role. Often times changing careers will mean a step back or at least a lateral move, and that is ok as long as you continue to deepen your experience.”