For Superstars in Training – Part 3 – How to Become a C-Suite Executive

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Influence, Management

Last week, I talked about key facilitators and barriers to your advancement from a manager’s role to a Director’s position. This week I discuss how to make it to the rarified atmosphere at the top leadership circle as a VP or C-level executive. As with any transition of this magnitude, you must anticipate the new skills that will be required of you and begin demonstrating them now.

Above all else, to survive at this level you must have passion. Many high-level executives are intoxicated by the power, notoriety, and money that go with their position and treat their advancement as a competitive game. Yet, if you aren’t actually doing what you love you’ll get eaten alive. The demands and stresses at this level can be so extreme that if you aren’t experiencing them as a bracing challenge you might well end up with a divorce, alcohol or drug addiction, or a heart attack.

Next, you must cultivate laser-like focus. You define not only what your company should be and do, but what it should not. Steve Jobs was famous for his annual retreats with his top people to decide what Apple would tackle in the coming year. Colleagues competed fiercely to champion their ideas into the top 10 initiatives. Then Jobs eliminated the bottom 7 knowing the company could only focus properly on 3.

The same goes for personal time management. There’s never enough of you to go around. Devote your time to the tasks that only you can achieve; delegate everything else. Then prioritize the things on your plate. Pursue no more than 3 major initiatives in tandem or you risk doing none of them well.

Protect your work/life balance jealously. If you’re doing what you love your work is also your play and most senior executives work long hours, but if you aren’t taking the time you need to work out, rest and regenerate, and be with the people you love, your ability to deliver your best at work eventually suffers.

Create visibility in your industry. Senior leaders are expected to have an extensive network of contacts, and to create visibility for themselves and their company by speaking regularly at conferences and networking events. You should also be publishing in industry periodicals, and it’s increasingly important to have visibility on social media as well. If you don’t have at least a Linked-In profile, it will reflect poorly on your personal brand. A vibrant online community is even better.

Be disruptive. Leading requires an ability to see over the edge of the horizon. First, anticipate market changes in your industry and position the company to exploit them when they arrive, growing market share and customer value. Second, anticipate how new technologies can bring transformational efficiencies to the way you do business. Drive early adoption. Introduce innovation, wring costs out of production, and shrink your delivery timeline before your competition can.

That said, remember it’s true the early bird catches the worm – but the second mouse gets the cheese. In any new space the first solution is rarely the most elegant. Learn from missteps and push Version 2.0 out the door close behind. Apple followed the iPod with the iPhone, even though it cannibalized iPod sales. They knew: If they weren’t first to market with mobile phone technology that could also serve up music, someone else would be.

Push your vision down through the ranks. Use both crisp, frequent communication and appropriate incentives to infuse every employee with a shared vision and a desire to do their part for shared success. They need to know what direction to row in, and they also need to know how they, specifically, fit into the bigger picture. Communicate frequently and through multiple media with the entire organization, and make sure your reward structures aren’t subtly sabotaging behaviors essential to long term success.

Surround yourself with genius. As a director you’ve learned to surround yourself with experts. In the leadership suite the bar is even higher. Invest the resources in finding, keeping, and growing top drawer people.

Similarly, develop a thick skin about letting go of the ones who disappoint. You are doing neither them nor the company any favors by keeping them on. If they’re capable but a poor fit give them time to find another position so their professional reputation isn’t tarnished.

And remember: properly executed, layoffs can be used to scrape lots of barnacles off the boat.

Know how to work with big egos (yours included). Few people get to this level without an inflated notion of their own importance. Develop the emotional intelligence, diplomacy, and knowledge of personal style to skillfully cultivate the best in each one. Some need to be challenged, others encouraged. Some want to be inspired, others require the facts without being “sold.” Some seek to connect with your philosophy and ideals, others just want to roll up their sleeves and have at it.

Coach your reports on how they can best communicate and collaborate with you. They’ll thank you for it, and they’ll be better able to support your best performance too.

Develop control over your emotions. That doesn’t mean being happy or nice all the time. A towering rage may be just what someone needs to hear to get in line or dig deeper, but if you actually lose control they’ll feel it, and it usually works against you. Realize that your team and the whole organization take their emotional cue from you. Project confidence, optimism, determination, and pride in the company’s work, and they will too.

Seek impartial council. The corner office is a lonely place. You may have colleagues you like and trust, but the truth is everybody has an axe to grind. Find an impartial third party to bounce ideas off of, to do a reality check with before a big decision, to advise you and point out your blind spots, to help you become an even better leader. Seek out someone whose sole allegiance is to you and make them part of your “kitchen cabinet.”

Few rise into the highest levels of leadership without intensive mentorship. If you aren’t getting all the cultivation you’d like through your company or your boss, contact me to see how I can help.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.For Superstars in Training – Part 3 – How to Become a C-Suite Executive