Career Development

What Is C-suite and How Do You Get There?

June 29, 2021

The executive-level C-suite of a company can be a challenging yet fulfilling professional experience. These professionals lead different departments and vital organisation functions to ensure teams meet goals and make progress. One way to begin your path towards the C-suite is in an entry-level position, and advancing your way up to an executive position. In this article, we discuss what the C-suite is, what positions are at this level, and how to become a C-suite executive.

What is C-suite?

C-suite is the term given to the highest level of leadership within a company or organisation. Specific titles may vary depending on company and industry, but typically the "C" in the term refers to "chief" in various corporate titles, such as chief executive officer (CEO) and chief financial officer (CFO).

Also known as C-level executives, C-suite members are individuals responsible for overseeing a business organisation and its respective departments. They work together as a team to ensure that the company's operations and strategies are aligned with its policies and plans. In a public company, activities that aren't effective in generating more profits for shareholders have to be corrected under the management of C-suite personnel. Since they're regularly required to make high-stakes decisions, C-level executives are highly compensated in the company.

C-suite positions

Depending on their activities, various companies may need different kinds of C-level expertise. These are the most common C-suite positions:

Chief executive officer (CEO)

The CEO is the most senior executive in the C-suite of a business organisation. For business professionals, becoming the CEO of a huge, successful company is largely regarded as the pinnacle of achievement. The CEO is generally in charge of managing the company and enhancing its value. They report directly to the board of directors and may also be a member of the board. Serving as the key decision-maker and most powerful leader in the company, the CEO conducts crucial tasks such as making decisions on vital financial moves, courting new investors, and partnering with industry leaders.

In a small entity, the CEO is usually the founder or owner. A larger company, however, has a board of directors that either assigns one member or executive as the CEO or recruits a candidate externally. The CEO will then appoint other executives to form the C-level team. Alongside the CEO, the board of directors and the C-suite will lead and give the company directions. The responsibility of a CEO does not only entail making crucial decisions, but they are also the ambassador of the company, embodying its vision and inspiring every employee to give their best in what they do.

Chief operating officer (COO)

Second to the CEO is the COO whose task is to oversee the everyday administrative and operational aspects of the business. The COO usually reports directly to the CEO. Sales, marketing, monetary growth, research and development may be areas under the care of a COO. These are some tasks a COO can be expected to perform:

  • Plan and execute effective and efficient business strategies, plans, and processes
  • Create goals for maximum development and progress of the company
  • Form policies that align with the company's culture and vision
  • Give advice based on functions and current state of the business

Read more: What Is a Chief Operating Officer? (With Skills and Types)

Chief financial officer (CFO)

A CFO is a leader responsible for directing the finance and accounting departments. They mainly take care of matters pertaining to the financial operations and decisions of a company. Their duties include statutory compliance, financial planning, forecasting and reporting, cash flow monitoring, and evaluation of the organisation's financial strengths and weaknesses. From there, they can contribute to operational decision-making, which may sometimes overlap with the work that a COO does. After analysing the finances of the business, they can propose corrective actions or make strategic recommendations to the CEO or C-suite members in order to transform the business.

Chief marketing officer (CMO)

The CMO is also commonly referred to as the company's marketing director. Reporting directly to the CEO, the CMO's primary goal is to grow revenue by increasing sales through a solid marketing plan. That means defining clear and effective marketing strategies to support the organisation's overarching strategies and goals. A good marketing plan can give the business a competitive advantage. In order to formulate that, the CMO leads and works with a team of marketing professionals on the marketing activities of the business. They plan, form, execute, and analyse the overall business marketing strategy.

The following are some responsibilities of a CMO:

  • Market research and communications
  • Product development, marketing, pricing, and management
  • Advertising and public relations
  • Brand management
  • Customer service
  • Sales management

Chief information officer (CIO)

The CIO has to be well-versed in technology as this involves a high level of technical expertise. The CIO, or information technology (IT) director, works with IT staff on the company's IT needs and manages the resources available to develop the company technologically. As such, this member of the C-suite is the main driver of innovation and brainstorms revenue-generating ideas for the organisation.

They will first assess the existing processes to identify if there are areas for improvement. They will then recommend the necessary software upgrades, choose and implement suitable technology for automation or streamlining of the company's processes. This is to maximise productivity and reduce inefficiencies. By outlining clear objectives and strategies for the IT department of the company, the CIO ensures that the company's IT infrastructure is the most up-to-date. This can be in the form of building digital platforms, personalising technological systems and platforms for enhanced customer experience, and directing the executive team on the best processes.

Paths to the C-suite

These are the most common paths to the C-suite:

Long tenure

To work your way internally to a C-suite position, you may need to work for the same company for a minimum of 15 years. By gradually working your way up the ranks in the company, take that time to gather institutional knowledge and experience, demonstrate your leadership skills, master the fundamentals of business, and make sure you're alert for any opportunities.

If you show that you're able to grow and evolve with the company, and meet the criteria to be a high-ranking executive, you may be considered for the position. Being proactive, taking steps to upgrade your skills, practising patience, and exceeding expectations can give you a competitive advantage.

Free agency

External recruitment is another common way to hold a C-suite position. The selected candidate may become a C-level executive immediately or start as the second-in-command in a specific department before being promoted. This gives the person time to familiarise with how the department operates and what the position entails. To clinch a role in the C-suite as an external applicant, work on building an impressive track record of success and developing your experience, expertise, and personal brand strategically.

Business ownership

If you launch your own business, that means you can create your opportunities independently. You can also gain more control over your progress to the C-suite. In the process, you may need to invest in the business. Possessing great sales and communication skills, creating a strong network, and fostering a tolerance for risks and uncertainty can be beneficial in your entrepreneurial journey.

How to become a successful C-suite executive

Aspiring C-suite executives can plan their careers in advance to help them stay on track and reach their goals as soon as possible. These are some tips to build a viable career trajectory that can lead you to the C-suite:

1. Select the right entry-level position

If you're pursuing a C-suite position, career planning is paramount. It may be less likely for you to clinch a CMO position when you have been working in the IT department most of your time in the company. This is because you're not gaining the relevant marketing experience which is vital as a CMO. Your role in the company needs to reflect your strengths and talents. Also, demonstrate your strategic and critical thinking in the projects you handle. This can help you to gain recognition from the higher management, and take you one step further in your C-suite journey.

You also want to make sure you start off working in a company that holds values, mission, and vision that are aligned with yours. A cultural fit is also important so that you thrive in the company and your job.

2. Cultivate your leadership qualities

Essential in these higher management roles, the C-suite executives are expected to be leaders of their departments. Hence, the key to secure these positions is having strong leadership skills. A major part of great leadership is effective and confident communication. Such people skills are necessary to get the best results from the teams you'll be leading in the future.

Related: 10 Types of Leadership Styles

3. Build your personal brand

A personal brand is not just about you, but also the coworkers you hang out with. By surrounding yourself with success at your workplace, you can learn many skills and exchange knowledge with one another. People will also look at you as a top-performing individual.

Giving off an executive presence can be useful in your quest to reach the C-suite. This can be achieved by projecting self-confidence, mitigating challenges head-on, and handling unpredictable situations with composure. You can also build a stellar personal brand and reputation by generating results that impact the company significantly or making phenomenal improvements in the processes of the organisation.

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