Modern business leaders tend to share some common traits: a progressive leadership style, a collaborative spirit, and emotional intelligence, according to executive development advisor Cassandra Frangos.
But leadership and people skills alone won’t propel rising stars to the top. Organizations today are also looking for executives who think like entrepreneurs: scanning external trends, quickly charting a new course when needed, and adapting to new cultures and leadership styles.
Given that breadth of demand, successful executives should be strategic in how they chart a path to the C-suite, said Frangos, the former head of global executive talent practice at Cisco.
Setting strict deadlines — like “I’ve got to be CEO by the time I’m 50” — is one mistake aspiring leaders make as they try to reach the top, said Frangos, author of “Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It to the Top.” “There are no absolutes in organizations.” Instead, aspiring executives should stay on top of digital trends, shifting hierarchies, and emerging positions like chief digital officer and chief artificial intelligence officer.
Pick a path (or build your own)
In her book, Frangos outlines four main paths to the C-suite.
Tenured executives stay with the same company throughout their careers, patiently rising through the ranks. The most common path, tenured executives are immersed in company culture and gain followers while also adapting to changes.
- Free agents come up through the ranks at one company, and then leave for another. Free agents are valued because they bring a fresh perspective and new ideas, and are often brought on during times of change or a strategic shift.
- Leapfrogs skip two or more levels of management to move into a top-level job, often thanks to their vision and ability to navigate a rapidly changing business environment. This is the most difficult path to execute, said Frangos.
- Founders leave an established company to start their own. This more ambiguous path has a higher level of risk, but can also be an expedited entree to the top, allowing leaders to create their own opportunities.
Aspiring leaders should think about which paths align best with their goals and experience, as well as their appetite for risk, said Frangos, who is leading a new MIT Sloan Executive Course, Strategies for Career Development: Charting a Path to the C-Suite, with professor of organizational studies Roberto Fernandez.
That said, Frangos stressed that career paths don’t look the same for everyone. Mid-level executives should be open to lateral moves and willing to reconsider their timeline. “Chart your own path,” she said. “Think about what’s going to be best for you. Because the answer is different for everyone.
Don’t let your ego become a stumbling block
Rising stars shouldn’t let success get to their heads.
“The one big blind spot is too big of an ego,” Frangos said. Some rising managers “just think they’re right all the time, or there’s nothing to learn, or they come across that way. And that’s usually where they’re going to get hurt in terms of the way they grow up in a company.”
Stating your ambition is important, she said, but a single-minded drive to be CEO can derail a career. “It can have negative effects. That’s not really where modern management and leadership is going,” she said. “Most CEOs today, if they’re a first-time CEO, they have plenty to learn. They don’t have all the answers. They really think about how to evolve and grow.”
In the same vein, said Frangos — who played a key role in succession planning when Cisco’s longtime CEO stepped down in 2015 — successful executives are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. “What is the team you need to put around you?” she asked. “If you’re a great strategist but not the best operator, then make sure you’ve got a great operator on your team.”