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6 key traits and behaviors to make it to the top. Eye on the C-Suite series: Part Three

At the top of the ladder, the stakes are high and the demands ever-increasing. This installment explores the essential future-proof traits and behaviors of todays’ top C-Suite executives that sets them apart.

Our ‘Eye on the C-Suite’ series explores the ascending drive to the top and offers a strategic roadmap to amplify your prospects. We explore today’s much needed skillsets and future proof leadership traits, with downloadable guides along the way. Moving on or moving up, starting out or changing course, here’s how to do it well.

Those who successfully make it to the corner office (and stay there) typically leverage a specific combination of skills, consistent behaviors, and some critical leadership traits: the ability to align and inspire others around a shared objective, an agile approach and a vigorous understanding of the overall business and its values.

While these core qualities have withstood the test of time, it is also true that different times call for additional skills. So, what new qualities should the C-suite hone and develop to navigate a world spinning off its axis?  

1. What do you bring to the table?

While many styles of leadership, levels of experience, and personal traits vary from one C-Level executive to the next, there are several key characteristics and exercises that many C-Suite members share which their success can be attributed to.

Knowing where you come in strong is golden – what do you bring to the table? Knowing where you may need development can also help stabilize your career trajectory and better measure where you stand amongst others. Self-awareness if a powerful tool that too many overlook.

While many styles of leadership, levels of experience, and personal traits vary from one C-Level executive to the next, self-awareness and EQ lay the foundation of most leadership skills - it is an indispensable skill from the perspective of leadership development.

Look at your track record and ask, what were the drivers of my past successes? What type of culture do I thrive in? You can actively chart a futuristic plan of action and identify the areas of development which will help determine your future growth prospects. Be clear about your true value and unique capabilities; your unique value proposition.

Building self-awareness and understanding your tendencies and motivational drivers can maximize performance - enabling you to unlock potential in both yourself and your team. What seems like a strength to one person, moreover, might not necessarily seem that valuable to another – an effective leader will assess these strengths and weaknesses, and surround themselves with a team whose strengths in those core abilities complement each other’s and their own.

With many boards and executive teams pressing the accelerator on critical hires, there has never been a more important time to stay on top of your professional game. 

2. Don’t go it alone

The road to the C-Suite does not have to be a journey undertaken alone. Take advantage of mentor opportunities and leverage the chance to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection. A mentor should be your beacon of truth: to help you explore a process of introspection and become your best self.

The benefits of this experience are many - such as an improvement of communication and personal skills, valuable career development opportunities, an increase in industry knowledge and key opportunities for network introductions.

You also may get to see your industry or career from a different perspective, and can gain valuable insights along the way. Whether a mentor or coach comes to you organically or as part of a more formal company-sponsored coaching program, they will be a useful sounding board and will give you a better understanding of both yourself and your career.

Sometimes putting fresh eyes on a problem can help the answer move forward - and fortunately for those interested in mentoring, the diversity of our multigenerational workforce offers plenty of opportunities.

Read more on mentoring and its two-way mutual benefits here.

3. Beyond experience: Your EQ and leadership rating

Times are long gone when the requirements for successful leadership stopped at the technical skills needed to run a company. Today’s leaders need to be so much more – they are expected to be transformational leaders, not transactional executives. And for this, they need to be self-aware, highly emotionally intelligent, and dependable. In short, they must be experts in self-management – they need to be able to lead themselves before they can lead others.

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you - Peter Salavoy and John Mayer.

EQ is critical for leaders who aspire to unite, motivate and align others. And in today’s world, it has never been more crucial. Read more on leveraging emotional intelligence in difficult times here. 

An emotionally intelligent person is better able to manage emotions - both their own and those of others - critically in times of pressure.

Whatever the circumstance, future-fit leaders tend to be able to make decisions quickly, but thoughtfully. They identify and seize on innovative, resourceful solutions to immediate and critical issues. They display character traits such as humility, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, compassion, and empathy. The C-Suite leaders who demonstrate these approaches to leadership today are seeing a positive bottom-line impact. It is worth the effort.

These power skills have always been an important trait for successful leaders, but with the strain of recent global disruptions, they are now vitally in the spotlight and becoming more sought after by employers - expectations have never been greater.

4. Identify your steps

A top leader will proactively move from self-awareness to self-improvement. What should you be doing now to successfully land you that top C-Level position?

As we explored in part one, C-Suite roles and accountabilities are continuously changing. They're so broad now that you can’t afford to pigeonhole yourself early in your career, so invest time in different roles. Breadth is key.

See different businesses – small, large; growth, turnaround; global, local.

Breadth is key. Challenge yourself in different environments. Seek out a variety of experience as it allows you to be more relevant in the future to more people.

The higher up the career ladder you go, the fewer positions there are available. So, if there’s an opportunity to gain new transferrable skills, leadership capabilities and perspectives, or to ‘learn the ropes’ in another function or industry, consider making the sacrifice in the short-term for those long-term rewards.

C-Level roles require extensive experience, a proven track record of success, and leadership confidence: something you can only gain with a multitude of practice.

You also need to think about what is going to be relevant for business in the future. Think digital, automation and ESG. The expectations and demands on top executives have never been greater; you must be able to contribute across the entire business agenda.

Look at your career as a journey, not a destination.

5. Clarity always counts in your favour

Whether you’ve been with your current company for a while now and looking to move up, or looking for opportunities elsewhere to make that step, look at what you can do to accelerate your advancement timeline and take control. Be proactive.

Look out for opportunities that can build trust with C-Level members. Don’t just be a ‘yes’ person and challenge when needed. Proactively take on new assignments and demonstrate your competence. Volunteer for new opportunities that demonstrate that you confidently understand the company’s strategic goals and the needs of the stakeholders. Remember, always focus on the organizational benefit and refrain from pushing a personal agenda. Show that you are a people person who is willing to walk the floors to meet people and learn the business. Take on operations or marketing projects and engage with other parts of the business. Get recognized for the right reasons.

If you’re looking to rise to the C-Suite within your current organization, make sure you articulate your career ambitions to top level executives. Be open and vocal about your ambition: transparency is key to getting on the C-Suite shortlist. Without the support of those at the top, it is difficult for executives to rise above their current position, so make your ambitions known.

Executives seeking a move, internally or externally, will be more successful sooner if they had kept their wider network engaged and active over the years. Clarity always counts in your favor.

6. Required: future-fit agents of change

The pandemic might have been an accelerant, but the winds of change have been blowing through the boardrooms and office floors for some years now.

For a C-Suite prospect to truly stand-out as an exceptional leader, it’s necessary to be able to think fast, make effective decisions, and stay true to a greater vision and strategy. They are defined by their mindset, not skillset.

Confident leaders are in demand for disrupted times. In today’s fast-paced world, the only certainty is uncertainty, making adaptability the most important leadership trait.

We defined this breed of leadership in our Global Leadership Confidence Index 2020. We saw it amongst the 15% of those who inspired others with their ability to manage disruption successfully. We saw how those leaders lean towards change. It did not intimidate them. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

To view our current, most recent 2022 edition of the Leadership Confidence Index, click here.

Be bold. Successful C-level prospects can effectively show an ‘inspired by change’ tendency in their track record to date. For them, seizing opportunities, even in the current difficult circumstances, comes naturally. Read more on future ready leadership here.

An executive with a diverse background of rich experiences, provides a company with the ability to respond more quickly to changes in the market, embrace multiple viewpoints and approaches, and creatively tackle a variety of challenges – while doing so with conviction and decisiveness.

7. Good lessons: we learn more from failure than success

Often the path to being a successful leader will not be smooth.

Doing hard things is a critical part of leadership; our whole wealth of experience consists of the mistakes we have made. A leader who won't act because they fear failure can appear to be effectual, but in truth, they're holding back the organization. Error culture is learning culture. It’s a confidence that allows the whole team to get on with their jobs and feel able to try new things and stay innovative, whatever the circumstances, to see what works best.

Leaders are there to lead into new areas, to drive innovation, to try new things, some of which will be bound to fail. Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, but successful leadership is learning from them.

How you approach the next step from the mistake will be what defines you and your leadership capabilities. It’s a chance to project yourself ahead and show resilience, having overcome and persevered.

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