Jan 13, 2023 | Advancing Your Career

I have been a VP for 10 years. How can I get into the C-Suite?

Q. Dear Zenagos, I have been a VP for more than 10 years, and I would like to get a C-Suite job. My boss would have already promoted me if he was going to, but I don’t think I can apply for C-Suite jobs at other companies. How can I break into senior management?

You can get to VP on merit, but you can only get into the C-Suite if someone wants you in the room. The company’s biggest secrets are shared in the senior management meetings, so the organization’s leader (CEO/President/General Manager/Executive Director) must be confident that every person in the room is loyal to the organization and will act in the company’s best interest. Also, senior management meetings are a place where senior leaders may say things that they would not say in front of the rest of the employees, so everyone in the room must trust every other person in the room. As a result, C-level jobs are inherently political.

VP to C-Level Takes a Long Time
It is normal for a VP to feel like the promotion to the C-Suite is due to them quite a long time before the CEO feels that the promotion is due. Often, a CEO is mystified to hear that a specific VP is impatient for a promotion. Ten years at VP may be an absolute minimum for some CEOs to consider a C-Suite promotion.

A C-Level Position Needs to be Available
Companies frequently create new VP and SVP (senior VP) roles when they need them, but it is often more difficult to just make up a C-Suite role. The Board may need to approve promotions to C-level at many organizations. So, this means that such a role needs to be available before you can be promoted. If the person holding the role is likely to stay at the company for a long time, you may not have an opportunity for the promotion, even if you would otherwise be qualified for the position.

You Need to Tell the CEO that You Want the Job
If there is an appropriate C-Level role available, then you need to let the organization’s leader know that you consider yourself qualified for the position and you would like to “put your hat in the ring.” The CEO can’t read your mind, so if you don’t tell anyone that you want the job, you have only yourself to blame if the organization goes in another direction.

The Organization May Not Picture You as a Leader
It isn’t fair, but organizations often pigeon-hole employees, which makes it difficult for an employee to move into any role other than the one they currently hold. For example, an employee who joined the organization while young may always be perceived as young, even if many years have passed, and the person’s skills and capabilities have grown. If your organization can’t see you as you are today, then you will need to change jobs in order to make it to the next level.

The CEO May Be Focused on a Different Need
Sometimes, the organization’s leader may need something more from the position than the internal candidate brings. For example, a CEO may go outside the company to bring in someone who has been working for a direct competitor and brings process knowledge that the internal candidate does not have. If your organization knows that you are interested in the promotion, but selects an external candidate anyway, then you know that your only path to promotion is to leave the company.

Changing Jobs May Not Solve the Problem
Job-hopping is generally a reliable technique for speeding your promotional path. It is tiring to change jobs, but if you can find a job, the new company is generally invested in you. However, this doesn’t necessarily hold true for the VP to C-level transition. Companies hiring at the C-level either promote from within or prefer a candidate who already has C-level experience and can bring that experience to bear in the leadership position. So, changing companies may not solve the problem. If you change companies at the VP level in order to have a better shot at a C-level role, make sure that your new manager is very invested in you.

A Smaller Company in the Same Field is a Good Target
You may be able to make the VP-to-C Suite transition by moving to a smaller company in the same field. A smaller company may consider your VP experience in a larger organization valuable enough to hire you into a senior management role. This is one way to speed your path to the C-Suite.

You Can Start Your Own Company
One way to ensure that you will be in the C-Suite is to start your own company. In the beginning, you may need to take a pay cut, but if you can build a successful company, then you won’t need to wait for someone else to deem you worthy of the senior management team. You can have the satisfaction of making the decisions and choosing the direction of the company yourself.


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