The Path to CEO: Which C-Suite Roles Lead to the Top?

ceo meeting with other executives

For any professional with ambitions to climb the corporate ladder, there’s one clear destination at the top: Chief Executive Officer. The CEO position is the highest in the land, and it comes with the promise of top-level authority, compensation and prestige. No matter the company, the CEO is one of one—and therein lies the problem.

The path to CEO is arduous and often, an unclear one. With only one position to fill, aspiring executives find themselves jockeying for the top spot and doing whatever it takes to get there. Should you hop between companies and climb the ladder within a specific industry? Put your head down and rise to the top through internal promotion? Unfortunately, there is no right answer. There is, however, evidence to support certain career tracks on the path to CEO.

If you’re a professional who’s gunning for the top spot at the executive table, here’s a look at some of the tried-and-true ways to put yourself on the fast track to CEO status.

The core four: traditional paths to CEO

In larger companies—those in the Fortune 500 or multinational conglomerates—the path to CEO is typically borne through a different C-suite position. These companies want someone in the role who’s not only capable of leading the organization with poise; they also want someone who knows the business, the industry and the culture. Hiring from within is a natural opportunity, and that means looking at other executives who have already proven themselves.

When it comes to internal promotion into the C-suite, consider the “core four:” The Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), a Divisional CEO or a Business Unit Director. These are positions that might be considered the 1B to the 1A of a CEO—executives who can step in when the CEO isn’t able to act as the primary decision-maker. They’re the most natural place to begin the search for a new CEO because they’re effectively primed for the duties and expectations that accompany the title.

Securing the CFO, COO or similar position isn’t a guaranteed shoe-in for a future CEO gig; however, it does increase your chances significantly. Research over the past 20 years shows that approximately 85% of CEOs of companies listed in the S&P 500 found themselves in the role thanks to time spent as one of the core four.

Emerging pathways: fast-track to leadership

Not everyone who aspires to be the CEO of a major company wants to spend their career climbing the corporate ladder. While it might seem counterintuitive to avoid systematically moving up the chain, there’s a growing number of CEOs at smaller companies who have more humble beginnings: entrepreneurship and startups.

The ability to conceive of a startup, bring it to market and helm the company through M&A or some other divestiture casts a bright light on founders and their partners. Few grinds are more arduous than the path to success for a startup, which makes it more than enough of a proving ground for aspiring executives. Companies looking for a breath of fresh talent and an infusion of passion are increasingly looking to startup founders and entrepreneurs when the time comes to hire a bold CEO.

Mind the gap: industry-specific considerations

There’s little doubt that the path to CEO is more complicated in some industries as compared to others. There are also industry-specific considerations that might make the journey easier for some individuals who aspire to lead.

For example, there’s a growing number of women CEOs; however, this talent pool is still small in many male-dominated fields. While a woman in construction or engineering may have to fight against the grain to rise to the C-suite, those who do could find themselves better-primed for a CEO position than their male counterparts.

Gender considerations aside, uncommon skill and cross-industry expertise can also aid CEO-seekers. Consider the high-level finance expert who specializes in overseas taxation vs. a budding regional company seeking to hire a CEO that can help expand business internationally. Or, think about the value a former civil engineering bureaucrat brings to a commercial building company as CEO.

In short: those who can distinguish themselves with invaluable skills, resources, connections and traits will find themselves primed to take on the CEO role in companies seeking to ply new leadership into growth.

More companies are relying on executive placement

Regardless of who they pick to be the next CEO, the question of attaining the role ultimately comes down to understanding how companies begin the search. Often, it’s done in partnership with an executive search firm: an organization that can find, vet and present qualified candidates. Those seeking to be part of the conversation need to know who they’re going to have it with. Starting it with an executive recruiter could mean ending with a coveted CEO job offer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *