How to Get into the C Suite; CTO, CFO, COO or CEO

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What does it take to be at the top? This is a question many young professionals ask themselves as they move up the ranks. There are many paths to top leadership positions within a company, and executives typically boast a wide range of experience, coupled with finely tuned leadership skills and, most importantly, vision. As you plan out your career, it’s important to know the skills and expertise that CEOs and their fellow members of the C-Suite need to succeed. 

Here are some tips on how to chart your way into the upper echelon of management executives.

What is the C-Suite?

It used to be the case that the path to the top positions was quite narrow, the goal was mainly to become a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a company. Now, the workspace has diversified, creating a plethora of chief management positions for professionals with different backgrounds. While most companies now boast a Chief Operational Officer (COO) or a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), others may have Chief Technology Officers (CTO), Chief Information Officers (CIO) and even Chief Human Resources Officers (CHRO), depending on their size and needs. The role of these executive managers is to align the day to day workings of their relevant departments with the overall strategy of their company. And the benefits of holding such positions are clear—being at the top of their respective fields, chief management personnel boast some of the highest job satisfaction levels and highest base salaries of any position. Most members of the C-Suite will make close to USD$140,000 a year, before any kind of commissions or bonuses. To learn more about how to reach these coveted C-level positions, let’s explore the most common C-suite positions. 

Chief Operational Officer

If you relish in overseeing the day-to-day operation of a company, the Chief Operational Officer position might be the top of the career ladder for you. Often describing themselves as a “jack of all trades”, COOs balance the CEO’s big picture vision with the nitty-gritty of how the company operates, and work to execute that vision. COOs are typically the second in command within the corporate hierarchy. This Ultimate Guide to Becoming a COO goes into more detail on how to secure a top-level operational position. Typically, ideal candidates for the COO position come with a wide range of hands-on experiences and a deep understanding of their business. Having worked in a number of positions within the company, also helps them identify gaps in operations and solve day-to-day problems, without losing sight of the big picture. 

Chief Financial Officer

Once a relatively narrow position confined to reporting figures, the role and capabilities of Chief Financial Officers have expanded to tackle new challenges. If you’ve a finance or accounting background, this Ultimate Guide to Becoming a CFO can help you chart your course to the C-Suite. The CFO frequently is at the head of their company’s accounting department, but no longer serve as mere stewards of their company’s financial resources. Instead, managing financial risk and accessing new opportunities is more and more often the chief role of CFOs. While you may not have to be a Certified Public Accountant, both educational and job experience in accounting or finances is key in this position. 

Chief Technology Operator

A relatively new addition to the C-Suite, Chief Technology Officers (CTO), have become more common since the developments in tech in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Given the importance of technology to the bottom line of most modern companies, CTOs balance the company’s long-term strategy with its technological resources. CTOs typically come from an IT background, and their responsibilities may overlap with the Chief Information Officer or Chief Data Officer positions. CTOs, however, differ from IT directors in their ability to think big, melding technological expertise with the company’s vision and allowing a company’s executives to interact in an informed way with technological capability to generate a competitive advantage. A CTO is typically a hybrid position, and requires individuals who can balance leadership capability with tech experience. Engineers, programmers and data analysts tend to thrive as CTOs, and an educational background combining information technology and business can be a plus. 

Chief Executive Officer

At the top of the totem pole, the CEO decides a company’s vision and long-term strategy, supported by the expertise of the other C-level executives. Nowadays, CEOs are typically selected by a company’s Board of Directors, so they are more accountable for the successes and failures of their companies. Many CEOs have backgrounds in business and law, with some having worked as consultants prior to being taken on as the head of the company. CEOs are typically adept at decision making and have considerable people management and leadership skills, as they’re essentially the face of the company. 

What Other Skills do C-Level Executives Need? 

Funnily enough, the specialized skills that bring someone to the top of, say, the IT department, aren’t as important in C-level positions. While considerable experience in your given field (up to 15 years) is generally a requirement, leadership skills and vision trump sector-specific acumen. Instead, C-level executives often work in the grey area between their area of expertise and the orchestration of an entire company. Decision-making capacity and flexibility are a must, as in the desire to keep learning. In the age of globalization, C-Suite level executives also must be capable of planning and overseeing expansion to new markets and regions.

While CTO or CFO positions are more field-specific, C-level positions don’t come with clear-cut educational requirements, though a background in business is helpful. Unless you’ve founded the company, the chances of you reaching the C-Suite are slim without a graduate degree, typically an MBA, and virtually nil without an undergraduate degree. While the focus of your undergraduate degree is less important, an MBA from a prestigious university can give you a major edge over other candidates. 

Conclusion

The stress and workload of C-level positions aren’t for everyone, but the rewards of the job are plentiful. With a strong educational background, valuable work experience and a strong foundation in leadership, communication, decision-making and strategic planning, you too could climb to the top rungs of the corporate ladder.

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