C-Level Boardroom

C-Level Leadership: How to reach the top of your career, observations and musings from an Exec Search specialist

When I was invited to put together a few words about essential survival tips for someone aspiring to the C level, it seemed like a big ask. Where to start? It’s a huge subject and difficult to convey in a few paragraphs. Having spent many hours interviewing and meeting so many talented C level execs at Lumina, there are certainly some common factors amongst those who have made it to the top. So, I’ve attempted to summarise some of the key points as a refresher to get readers thinking about the year ahead as we approach 2024.

What is C-level?

C-level executives are the superheroes responsible for an organization’s success.

For the last five years, the average size of the executive board has been increasing. Founders are adding Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Chief Strategy Officers, and other positions to delegate effectively, speed up business extension, and bring deep expertise and unique knowledge to the team.

In a nutshell, C-level executives are responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and direction of the company. They also oversee the performance, culture, and reputation of the company. They report to the board of directors, who represent the shareholders.

Some of the most common ones are:

  • CEO: The leader of the company, who has the final say on all major decisions.
  • COO: The second-in-command, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the company.
  • CFO: The head of the finance and accounting functions of the company, who manages the financial resources and risks of the company.
  • CIO: The head of the information technology (IT) function of the company, who oversees the IT infrastructure, systems, and security of the company.
  • CTO: The head of the technology development and innovation function of the company, who leads the research and development (R&D) activities, and creates and delivers new products, services, and solutions.

In fact, over 17 different variations are now used, and more being added all the time.

What are the skills and qualities of a C-level leader?

To become a C-level leader, most people agree that a key requirement is to have the following set of skills and qualities that distinguish you from the rest of the professionals.

  • Leadership skills: A good leader will inspire, motivate, and empower their teams and employees, set clear expectations, provide feedback, and recognize achievements. They need to have a strong vision and direction for the company and communicate it effectively to the stakeholders. In other words, they need to lead by example and carry their teams with them.
  • Communication skills: A good leader always communicates clearly, concisely, and persuasively, both verbally and in writing. They need to tailor their messages to different audiences, such as customers, employees, investors, media, and regulators. They need to listen actively, ask questions, and understand the needs and concerns of others. This is the way to build rapport, trust, and relationships with various stakeholders, and influence and negotiate with them.
  • Decision-making skills: You need to make fast, accurate, and informed decisions, based on data, analysis, and intuition. You need to weigh the pros and cons and consider the short-term and long-term implications of your decisions. You also need to take calculated risks and be accountable for the outcomes of your decisions. But rather than being dogmatic about decisions, a good leader will adapt and change their decisions; based on the feedback and results they receive (whilst not veering wildly about like a supermarket trolley!)
  • Strategic thinking skills: As a leader you will think big and see the big picture of the company and the industry, identify the opportunities and threats, and formulate the goals and objectives of the company. You also need to create and execute the strategies and plans that will achieve the goals and objectives. You need to monitor and evaluate the progress and performance of the company, and adjust and improvements as needed.
  • Innovation skills: You need to foster a culture of innovation and creativity in the company and encourage your teams and employees to come up with new ideas and solutions. You also need to embrace and implement change and be open to learning and experimenting leveraging the latest technologies and innovations and staying ahead of the competition.

How to become a C-level leader?

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for becoming a C-level leader. Different companies and industries may have different requirements and expectations for their C-level executives. However, there are some general steps and tips that can help you prepare and position yourself for a C-level role. Here are some of them:

  • Gain experience: Having extensive work experience is essential for any C-level career. Most C-level executives have at least 10 to 15 years of experience in their field or industry and have worked their way up preferably in different functions as sales, operations, finance, or marketing, can give you a broad and holistic perspective of the business. You may also seek opportunities to work in different companies, regions, or countries, to gain exposure and insight into different markets and cultures.
  • Build your network: Having a strong network is important for any C-level career. Your network can help you find and access opportunities, resources, and information that can advance your career. Your network can also provide you with support, advice, and feedback that can help you grow and improve. You can build your network by attending events, joining associations, participating in online forums, and reaching out to people who share your interests and goals. You can also maintain and nurture your network by staying in touch, offering help, and – importantly – expressing gratitude.
  • Show your value: Showing your value is crucial for any C-level career. You need to demonstrate your skills, qualities, and achievements to the top decision-makers, and prove your worth to the company. It’s important to deliver results, solve problems, and create value for the company. You need to be proactive, innovative, and adaptable, and take on challenges and opportunities. You need to be visible, vocal, and confident, and showcase your leadership and potential.
  • Get an education: Having a solid educational background – preferably to Masters level – is a good foundation for any C-level career.

In almost all cases the common thread of a good CXO is the need to work hard, learn constantly, and network effectively as well as having clear vision, a strong passion, and a positive attitude. With these, you can achieve your C-level goals, and make a difference in your organisation and industry.

So what could possibly go wrong? Here are some of the mistakes that that up-and-coming leaders make:

For those aspiring to move up to C level, to improve your leadership skills, here are some practical tips and advice:

So while there is no silver bullet, an exceptional leader should be mindful of all the above.

There are certainly lessons to be learnt by reading books/ listening to podcasts by those who have made it to the top. That could be a great suggestion for something to add to your Christmas wish list for this year.

Anne Fenton, Chair, Lumina Search