Career and Jobs

Four Key Traits That Can Advance Your Career Into The Executive Ranks

How can I set myself on the path for senior leadership roles in the near future? It can be within or outside my current organization. I am currently in a middle management role but there is a huge flux in my current organization due to acquisition, so I need to plan accordingly. Also I had taken on a new role, which hasn’t paid off as well as expected, hence need to take stock and pivot back to growth. – Client Relationship Manager

Kudos to this CRM for being proactive about their career and taking a chance in a new role. Even when a new role doesn’t seem to benefit your career right away, it does encourage you to grow overall, which is one way to protect your career from getting stuck (you can read six more ways that careers stall here). That said, if the direction you’re going isn’t leading to the advancement you want (in this case, an executive promotion), you may need to change roles or at least broaden your responsibilities so you can demonstrate the key traits that organizations look for when selecting executives to lead departments, product lines or geographies:

1 – Bottom line impact

How much experience do you have generating revenues, minimizing costs, and/or overseeing a budget? Ideally, you have experience over multiple years so you can demonstrate consistency and growth in year-over-year results. If you have experience in both up and down economies or with departments in both growth and turnaround conditions, then you have an even stronger case that you’re ready for the financial responsibility that senior leaders face. If your most recent role took you away from clear bottom line responsibility – or, the case of this CRM, you might have still had bottom line responsibility but it was an area that didn’t do well – then focus your next role on something that will give you direct impact on the bottom line.

I once had a client who was offered two new roles within her large organization – one conveyed full ownership of a P&L, and the other was a subject matter expert for sales. While the sales advisor role would have significant influence on the top line, it was indirect. Ultimately, the sales staff would call the shots, and my client’s efforts, however well-intentioned, would play a supporting role. Clearly, the first role, with full ownership, was better for keeping her on the leadership track.

2 — Strategic alignment

Sometimes a new role doesn’t work out because it’s with a business the overall organization decides to divest. Or it could have been an unrealistic turnaround request where you weren’t set up for success. Another red flag is if the current leadership pivots their strategy and priorities, and you’re working on something that is not aligned with the new direction.

For your current company or any other employers you are targeting, pay close attention to where they are investing dollars and strategic efforts. Talk to insiders to understand the nuances beyond what they share in a press release or in the rah-rah company offsite. Do a thorough due diligence like an investment firm would before putting its dollars to work. You are also making an investment in time and in the opportunity cost of not doing something else. Make sure you select a role that puts you in alignment with what the company values and the strategic direction in which they are heading.

3 — Unique vision

Even as you take your cues from what the company has already decided, you also want to have a unique vision of what the company should be doing and where it should be heading. This requires that you stay updated on your industry, the key competitors, high-potential new entrants, disruptive technology, changing customer needs and other news and trends. If you want to be a leader, then you need to have a vision that people will want to follow.

Your vision is a key component of how you will lead and what makes you unique. It’s something you should be able to articulate in a job interview (executive job search is different from more junior hiring). You also should have examples to show when you have already been a leader, even on a smaller scale. You want prospective employers to know that your vision isn’t just theoretical, but you have put it into practice with completed projects, committed teams and tangible results as proof.

4 — Support among decision-makers

Whether you focus on advancing at your current company or look outside, it’s people who hire people, so you’ll need support among the ones who pick future leaders. As you advance in your career, you need visibility among more senior people. At the highest levels, this also may include visibility with Board members, key investors, important strategic partners and the most valuable customers. As you think about next roles or projects within your current employer, think about who already supports you and where you need to establish new relationships. As you look outside, consider the amount of visibility you’ll get as a key factor in picking your next role.

In addition to the immediate decision-makers, there are also people who influence the decision-makers. A strong, diverse network is always helpful because you don’t know exactly who knows whom. If a future role requires relocation and you’re worried that your network will disappear once you move, rest assured that, even in the later stages of a career, you can absolutely rebuild your network in a brand new location.


There is no one-size-fits-all career path direct to senior leadership

Circumstances change. Market conditions improve and deteriorate. Leadership turns over, and sometimes entire organizational structures are overhauled. Technology advances and other disruptions require organizations to pivot. There will never be just one move for you to make, which also means you are never permanently stuck. Stay creative and flexible, and make your career plans around the four key traits that move you in the right direction towards leadership.

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