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How to Build a Career Path Toward the C-Suite

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December 5, 2022

By Jen Spencer

It’s not uncommon for folks to ask me, “How did you get here?” Perhaps they’re referring to my path via marketing. Or maybe they see that my original field of study was English and I started my career as a high school teacher, which doesn’t traditionally translate to future CEO. Regardless, they’re likely asking because they’re considering their own journey and hoping to learn a bit more about my experience to inform their own choices. 

As I’ve invested in my own personal and career development and have spent time with a variety of aspiring, brand new, and of course, well-seasoned CEOs, it’s been clear to me that the path toward the C-suite is one full of bumps and turns, highs and lows, and more. In other words, there’s no straight shot, and it’s certainly not a smooth journey. But, what in life ever is?

That being said, by developing abilities, business fundamentals, functions, and skills, you can create a kind of road map for yourself. And beyond the hard skills are the interpersonal, leadership skills that take time and self-awareness to develop which will come with the experiences you open yourself up to both in your daily work and your personal relationships. 

There are a number of different ways to arrive in the C-suite, just like there are many options on most maps for how to get from point A to point B. But below you can find an overview of a path that focuses on some of the qualities of great leaders that you might not have read about before.

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What Positions Are in the C-Suite?

In most companies, the C-suite is made up of high-level leadership positions. Specific titles may vary depending on the industry and company, but the “C” generally represents the word “chief.” 

Members of the C-suite are responsible for leading their respective departments. They also work as a team to ensure the company’s strategies and operations are in line with goals, plans, and policies. 

At most companies, you’ll find some combination of these positions in the C-suite:

  • Chief executive officer (CEO)
  • Chief operating officer (COO)
  • Chief financial officer (CFO)
  • Chief marketing officer (CMO)
  • Chief information officer (CIO)
  • Chief people officer (CPO)
  • Chief compliance officer (CCO)
  • Chief information security officer (CISO)
  • Chief growth officer (CGO)

Generally, people end up in these positions because they own the business, have experienced a long tenure with the business, or have been externally recruited after building an impressive track record. 

The Winding Path to the C-Suite

I just shared a few situations that help professionals find their way into the C-suite, but let’s dig a little deeper.

You’ve probably heard of the cut-and-dried approach to the C-suite. Sometimes, people talk about it as if it’s an equation:

X job + X number of years + X company + X connection = C-Suite Position

Although all of these factors play a part, most people skip over some of the most important attributes: interpersonal skills, how you treat others, and how you lead by example.

So let’s go over what can be broadly categorized as the “practical” plan and the “be a human” plan. 

The Practical Plan

  • Choose the right succession of roles. The majority of C-suite executives are people who have worked their way up internally through a succession of roles that relate closely to the intended executive position
  • Get recognized for your accomplishments. This isn’t specific to your daily tasks. You also need to be recognized for your initiative by volunteering for new opportunities, demonstrating your willingness to take on new challenges, and possibly taking on roles that require travel or relocation. 
  • Develop qualities of a leader. You can’t just have the practical skills down. You also need to know how to effectively lead with clear, persuasive communication and motivational techniques; act with a calm temperament under pressure; and consistently serve as a role model for the company. 
  • Cultivate your personal brand. Most C-suite executives have a reputation in their company and industry because they have built a personal brand based on their values, passions, and aspirations. With social media networking, it’s easier than ever to promote yourself and establish meaningful, motivating relationships

The Be a Human Plan 

  • Be authentic.First things first: Be your true, authentic self as a leader. If you’re playing by someone else’s rulebook, not only will people notice, but you also won’t be able to make the decisions you need to make.
  • Address issues head-on. Plenty of people are afraid of uncomfortable or difficult conversations. You can acknowledge this discomfort while still facing the problem directly, especially in situations in which unconscious biases are at play with yourself or others in your organization. 
  • Understand imposter syndrome is real.  Believe it or not, imposter syndrome doesn’t end as soon as you arrive in the C-suite. Although it’s different for everyone, imposter syndrome can set in when you accidentally skip a step of a process or find yourself unprepared for a meeting. Because this experience is so personal, it is important to track your experience as soon as it sets in and identify what needs to be directly addressed.  
  • Get comfortable with risks. As a leader, you’re in charge of making major decisions, either company-wide or within your department. Many times, these changes can pose risks, and many of us naturally fear risk. We develop ways to gain confidence in taking these risks, such as imagining the worst outcome and determining whether that outcome can be lived with. Soon, as our CRO Stephanie Valenti likes to say, “what’s uncomfortable today is comfortable tomorrow.”

Both of these plans or approaches require an investment in yourself as well as a strong support system because growing is exciting and fun, but it can also be a little painful, just like those beautiful aches you feel a day or two after you level-up your routine at the gym (or in my case, the Pilates studio). This is why career coaches and mentors are so valuable, as well as communities like Pavilion, of which I’m an active member.

Go Deeper with the Intelligent Inbound Podcast

Journeying on the path toward the C-suite can’t be done alone. That’s why I host the Intelligent Inbound Podcast to speak with guests and explore breakthrough ideas, innovations, and strategies that drive big results. 

It’s not your same-old, same-old leadership podcast. We get real about our struggles, accomplishments, and everything in between. Check out our recent episode “Against All Odds: How Two Powerful Female Leaders Made Their Way to the C-Suite,” and be sure to sign up to have future episodes sent straight to your inbox! 


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Topics: Inbound Marketing, Leadership, Thought Leadership