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More Than One Road to the C-Suite

While certain jobs are still statistically more likely to lead to top-level jobs, executive recruiters say more factors are coming into play

Getting to the corner office was once just a matter of paying your dues and following a narrowly defined route. Want to become a chief executive? You had better put in time as the president or chief operating officer. Dream of becoming chief financial officer? It's best to have vice-president of finance on your résumé first. If only it were still that easy.

Company boards are beginning to place less trust in the customary method of looking at executives with specific experience matches, opting instead to suss out candidates whose qualifications may not seem obvious at first glance. "This current round of firings [of top-level executives] may point out how frail our current crop of leaders is, perhaps making way for more nontraditional promotions," says Jay Gaines, president and chief executive officer of New York executive search firm Jay Gaines & Co.. That makes the career path to the corner office all the more…well, nontraditional.

A company operating in a distinctive culture or industry may look for core competencies that might not have been gained in more traditional management jobs. "A very strong R&D company with highly engineered products would favor a VP of engineering or operations as a possible position [from which] to become CEO," says Steve Watson, international chairman of Dallas executive search firm Stanton Chase. Alternatively, he points out, a sales-oriented company "would generally favor a GM [general manager] of a business unit, who probably got there through sales."

Reflecting Corporate Strategy

Often, an unusual choice for promotion signals a shift in a company's strategy. In 2001, one client of Greenwich (Conn.) executive search firm RSR Partners demanded a new chief executive just as it was gearing up for a series of acquisitions. After a prolonged search, RSR settled on the former head of an investment bank, who vice-chairman Thomas McLane decided, "would have the right acuity in investing opportunities" even though the candidate's résumé lacked the usual experience needed to lead an industrial manufacturing company.

An emphasis on succession planning often results in a candidate whose selection reflects corporate strategy more than convention. "If the company is looking to build a new or next-generation management team to take them forward for 10 to 15 years, then they will look at whomever has that tenure left within his/her career," says Stanton Chase's Watson. "Then the next CEO could be the best qualified candidate [among those] from multiple functions."

And even though conventional wisdom suggests that to get ahead you have to move around, there's a strong argument to be made for sticking with a company. Rising stars will often be promoted from within, because upper management can easily observe if they have the right skill sets, even if they lack the standard level of experience. "When a company promotes internally, they have the advantage of working with someone and grooming them," says Gaines. Plus, he says, there's "a lot of empirical evidence that the best placements and best results come from moving people internally."

"No Clear Path to the Top"

There are various other factors headhunters are beginning to eye more closely, rather than relying exclusively on candidates' CVs. For example, applicants aspiring to become CEO who haven't held the COO post have a shot as long as they have had exposure to board meetings, and it's also recommended that they have been included in quarterly analyst calls.

And there's no denying employers and recruiters rely on the intangibles when deciding if a candidate has what it takes to go the distance. "The most important [ingredients are] personality and people skills," asserts Russell Reynolds, Jr., chairman and CEO of RSR Partners. "There is no clear path to the top."

It may comfort those who are following a more traditional job path to know that won't necessarily work against them. Using data obtained from salary research site PayScale —where visitors provide information about what job they currently occupy and what job they held five years prior—BusinessWeek found that for most dream jobs, there is still one or more "gateway paths" that are most statistically likely to lead you there. For example, 20% or more of current CEOs used to be company presidents; 20% or more of current COOs used to be vice-president of operations; and 20% or more of CFOs used to be financial controllers.

To see what paths people with these and other dream jobs took to get to the top, read this BusinessWeek slide show..

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for in New York.

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