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C-Level Leadership: 5 Proven Tips To Prepare Yourself

In days past, the phrase, “moving into the C-suite” conjured images of luxuriously appointed corner offices (complete with bar tray), wood paneled (and probably smoke-filled) boardrooms, heady conversations that lasted well into the evening, cordoned-off executive dining areas, and a host of support staff scurrying about at the beck-and-call of the CEO and (usually) his team (and it usually was a “he”). Today’s world is obviously very different, but successfully moving into a C-level role continues to require much of the same preparation as it did a generation ago.

If you’re on the verge of taking on a C-level role, or if you’re merely aspiring to that level at some point in the future, here are five suggestions for how to better prepare yourself:

1. Adopt a “whole company” mindset

Up until now, you may have been able to get away with being somewhat parochial in your perspectives as related to your firm or your industry. You’re perhaps seen as a sales leader or an operations person or a finance specialist. If you want to add value at the top of the company, though, you need a working knowledge of the whole company as well as of the industry in which you participate. Address your gaps in knowledge and learn about other parts of the business by meeting with your colleagues in those areas, reading corporate-level strategic documents, listening to earnings calls, etc. Make sure you really understand how your company earns revenues, where its expenses lie, what drives profits, what segments of customers it serves, how it positions itself competitively, the state of its balance sheet, the stated corporate strategy, any regulatory frameworks under which it operates, etc. Take an interest in the current priorities of the various members of the executive team and how they fit together to create an overall execution plan. All of this learning will better prepare you for a top role.

2. Seek broadening experiences

If you still see your move into the top ranks as a few years out, identify opportunities in your current role to learn a new skill or get exposure to a new situation. Seek out other roles that will help fill in areas where you’ve got less of a track record. Find mentors who can help broaden your perspective. Get input from the head of HR or ask members of the executive team what they find most important to their roles and what they felt they were lacking when they took their current positions. If you’ve got the time to address your gaps through an actual broadening experience, be strategic and seek it out.

3. Get Board-level and Investor Relations exposure

Almost all companies beyond a certain size have Boards of Directors. Their role is to guide the company on behalf of the company’s shareholders. They hire the CEO and approve executive compensation, among other responsibilities. As a senior executive, you will likely have regular engagement with individual members of the Board, with Board committees, or with the full Board. You’ll be better prepared for those interactions if you seek out opportunities to get to know them earlier on and get to lead or participate in discussions with them during Board meetings. Push for these opportunities.

Getting Investor Relations experience is similar, if you’re in or considering working for a public company. At a minimum, listen to the quarterly earnings calls, particularly for the questions that analysts raise. Read their coverage, if you can get access to it. (Ask your IR department to share it with you.) Where possible, look to participate in the earnings preparation process to give yourself more exposure to how the Investor Relations team prepares for an earnings release. If you firm holds an Investor Day, read through the materials that are shared and listen to the recording of the session, if you aren’t able to attend it directly.  Look at who your firm’s 5-10 largest shareholders are. Are they institutional shareholders or individuals? Are the institutional holders doing so because your firm is part of an index or have they taken an active position? Have they invested for growth (stock price appreciation) or value (dividend payments). All of these mechanisms will give you a better sense of how your CEO and CFO are managing your company’s relationship with the Street and investor base.

4. Work out your rough spots

Undoubtedly, you’ve honed your skills as you’ve climbed through the ranks. You’ve probably picked up some habits as well, not all of them good. Some you’ll know about, some you may not. Either way, seek out an independent evaluation of yourself that goes beyond the depth of the typical year-end performance review. Ask family and friends to describe your good and bad points. Get a leadership coach. Have a 360-degree feedback survey done on your behalf. As a point of reference, consider Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There for his list of 20 common bad habits that many leaders need to shake. Whatever source(s) of input you choose, go into the process open-minded. Don’t be dismissive or defensive. We’re all imperfect, even those most admired among us. Commit to always working on your imperfections – and expect to have to work harder to get honest feedback – as you move into progressively more senior roles.

5. Build your support network

As the adage goes, “It’s lonely at the top.” Indeed, as you move into more senior roles, you lose internal sounding boards and confidantes. You are no longer “one of the gang” but rather are “the boss.” Some people will be able to make that transition with you. Others will suddenly view you differently. The net effect is that you’ll have fewer people with whom you can have open, honest, vulnerable conversations. For this reason, it’s best to put together a “personal board of advisors” as you progress through your career. (For more on personal boards of advisors, check out our prior post.) The members of that group may know they play this role for you, or they may not. You’ll invariably swap out members over the years as relationships ebb and flow, and as your own advisory needs change. Consider as well retaining a leadership coach, whether funded by your company or by you directly. Having these types of relationships in place will absolutely smooth your transition into an executive-level role, and they will help you stay centered both when things are going well and when you’re feeling overwhelmed or challenged.

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If you’re on the brink of a move into executive management, acknowledge that you’ve already made it further into the higher ranks than the vast majority of people will ever get. Give yourself credit for what you’ve done to make it to this point. At the same time, acknowledge that you don’t (and will never) know everything. Continue to hone your trade and keep working toward being a better version of yourself. We need more humble, empathetic leaders. Be one of them!

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