Get Ready for the Executive Suite

Once you know you're really ready to make the big trip, get your network together, and remember, the corner office is on a two-way street, advises Joseph Daniel McCool

Your time has come. There's no holding you back now. You've demonstrated your talent and used your expertise to consistently surpass expectations in your director or vice-president level role. And you feel ready (maybe you're even growing impatient) for a move up in pay, prestige, and power.

So now you're wondering how you can make the big leap to senior executive management. Are you truly committed to assuming the risk and responsibility inherent in taking that next step? And will you bring to your biggest career move the kind of advanced leadership skills that are needed to beat even tougher performance expectations?

The answers to those questions, of course, lie within. But you must realize that having the right stuff to move into an executive leadership role doesn't always guarantee you'll get your shot at the corner office. In all likelihood, you'll need some help. Your existing network probably includes dozens of mid-career professionals with similar ambition, energy, abilities, and track records. Like you, they're waiting for their shot, and for any of a number of reasons, they may be waiting in vain—which you don't want to do.

The Importance of Colleagues and Competitors

Making the big leap to the executive suite in any company, as many headhunters would attest, often boils down to trust. To have advanced this far in your own career, you've undoubtedly earned the trust and respect of subordinates (maybe not all of them, but most of them), lateral peers, executive management, and, equally important, other professionals working in the same industry or job function within other companies.

Both groups—people who know you as a colleague and those outsiders who know you as a competitor, friend, and/or peer—will be equally important to you as you contemplate the next chapter of your working life and position yourself to make it a reality.

You'll need the support of current colleagues and co-workers should opportunity knock in the form of a senior management promotion with your current employer. And you'll need to leverage whatever external professional network you've been wise enough to build in recent years in the event you decide to pursue a move into the top ranks of a different organization.

It Takes Timing, Balance, and Skill

Of course, you can't overlook the influence of those people who control access to the highest paying, most prestigious, and most powerful senior management roles around the world—executive recruiters. The headhunters who may have called you over the years to check your pulse and gauge your interest in a move might now merit more of your time and consideration, especially if you feel you aren't, or won't soon be, given a shot at the promotion you believe you deserve.

Making 'the big leap' to the most senior executive leadership roles often involves the right timing, the right balance of personalities and perspectives, and the right match of skills sets and experience with a critical job function. And that's what executive recruiters specialize in.

And again, there's the matter of trust. No matter where you decide to go next, no matter what the role, no matter what the challenge, the question of whether you will get the opportunity to lead in a senior management position will likely hinge on whether others feel you can be trusted with the responsibility of being a steward of shareholder trust and wealth.

A Push to Take that Giant Step

That's precisely the kind of leadership attribute executive recruiters will screen and assess as they research your credentials and probe into your most critical work experiences during the course of possibly multiple interviews. But there's more to learn about how fit you are for the role, too.

People also have to believe in your ability to steer corporate resources in a direction that boosts shareholder value, gets the most from your team, and opens up new opportunities. Otherwise, your career may remain stuck in neutral. Executive recruiters will tell you there's always a measure of risk in exploring other options. But many will also confide that there's much to be learned by taking that bold step outside your current situation—and outside yourself—to see what's possible.

Each leadership recruiter has his own preferred recipe for executive success. With luck, he'll find those elements in your experience, ability, and ambition. But in addition to trustworthiness, you'll have to bring an open mind and a commitment to learn to your new role, especially if it's in another organization.

Be Willing to Stretch

The road to the executive suite and the road away from it are both littered with the stories of promising senior executives—many of them just like you—who brought tremendous personal and professional achievement to the challenge. But the road from that office is also littered with the stories of those who brought closed minds to their new executive roles—often a fatal career flaw.

As the challenges of corporate executive leadership continue to intensify, fewer organizations—and followers, for that matter—are willing to tolerate leaders who lack the requisite emotional intelligence to know that lifelong learning is one of the key attributes a leaders must have. You must be willing to acknowledge you may not be able to meet every challenge right away or have a ready answer. Any executives who believe they've already learned everything they need to know about their organization, its customers, its workforce, and/or the markets it serves still have lots to learn about themselves.

Flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, and continual self-assessment are some of the key ingredients to get you to the top and to keep you there. You can't stretch new resources and new team members to achieve great things without a willingness to stretch yourself in the process.

Asking yourself: What have I learned today? is one of the best ways to build your career and your perspective and to keep yourself grounded in a new executive role. It's also a good exercise to keep yourself nimble and open-minded enough to tackle change and challenge, in all forms.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.