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C-Suite

A Guide To The C-Suite

From the outside looking in, the ‘C-suite’ of a business can seem confusing and a little mysterious. However, for many working professionals, their ultimate goal is to reach the C-suite level of their own or another company. In days gone by, the pathway was clear: Make the choices for promotions, befriend the right people, get enough time under your belt, and you’ll be in the position to make this climb.

However, as with most things in business, this pathway, and the C-suite itself has changed. The scope of roles, the titles and positions, and how you get here is not the same as it once was. Regardless of the industry, even those that have been around for a long time like Food Manufacturing, the rules for the C-suite are different.

So, if you’re looking to advance your career and get on the path to a C level position, what does this mean for you? How can you get yourself into a C-suite position in this age of disruption and ever-evolving technology? In this article, we outline what the C-suite is, the most common titles at this level and how to obtain a C-suite position.

What is the C-suite?

The term C-suite refers to the highest leadership positions available within an individual company or organisation. Some companies have their titles or choose different words, but at this level, the titles are very consistent. Typically, the ‘C’ means Chief and precedes the particular aspect of the business this person is responsible for overseeing. This title almost always ends with ‘officer’.

Take the chief marketing officer (CMO) as an example. ‘Chief’ indicates their level, ‘Marketing’ is their area of responsibility, and then ‘Officer’.

People that hold these positions are sometimes referred to as “executives” or ‘C-level executives”. The members of this level of a business are responsible for the major decision making of a particular department or area of the business and report directly to the chief executive officer (CEO). This group work in tandem to ensure the success of a business and keep operations in line with the values and strategy they have outlined for the company.

In a public company, this group will also answer to shareholders or the board – another major factor in the direction of the business. If certain activities or operations aren’t generated the desired profits, it falls to the C-suite group to oversee any changes and corrections that need to be made. In summary, the C-suite members are responsible for all of the major, high stakes decisions that need to be made.

There is an old saying in business that goes ‘You are paid based on the problems you solve’. This is the perfect explanation as to why C-suite positions receive the largest compensation of any other role in a company. What individual roles are paid will vary from business to business.

What are the C-Suite Positions?

This isn’t one set list of C-suite positions that every company needs to have. However, the core C-suite roles remain fairly consistent across most businesses. The most common C-suite positions are:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Chief Operating Officer (COO)
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Chief Compliance Officer (CCO)
  • Chief Human Resources Manager (CHRM)
  • Chief Security Officer (CSO)
  • Chief Green Officer (CGO)
  • Chief Analytics Officer (CAO)
  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
  • Chief Security Officer (CSO)
  • Chief Data Officer (CDO)
  • Chief Quality Officer (CQO)

It is worth noting that almost every business will have a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a Chief Operating Officer (CFO), a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). The rest will depend on the industry and the make-up of the business.

We will discuss the individual roles and responsibilities of each of these positions in another article (link to future posts). This article will focus on how to set up a pathway towards one of the positions.

How can I get a C-Suite Position?

If there was a single sure-fire way to reach a C-Level position, there would be a lot more people reaching these positions. The reason there isn’t one single pathway is that getting to the position of C-suite varies so much from company to company and from role to role. What works for one person, may not work for another.

Another factor is that the corporate landscape is constantly changing. The arrival of start-ups has seen younger people accelerate to C-suite positions in record time, simply because the ladder in front of them is a smaller climb.

The transformation of technology has also seen the creation of new roles that simply didn’t exist 20/30/40 years ago – such as Chief Green Officer or Chief Data Officer which has seen people obtain these tiles in unconventional ways.

All this being said, there are a few common paths that remain consistent across industries and businesses:

Founding a Business

As the founder of a business, you automatically inhabit a C-suite position by default. Whilst you may have a wider range of tasks and responsibilities and will gain first-hand experience in making the key decisions to drive a business forward.

This pathway can be limiting, however, as when you start at the top there is nowhere to climb. So you can only scale your business or seek a higher position elsewhere.

Time Served

The most tried and tested method to obtaining a C-suite position. This traditional pathway is taken by many professionals. By starting at a low ranking position with a company, you can network and slowly climb the ladder of the organisation. Although predictable, there is logic to it. As you work your way up, you’ll gradually understand the business and industry to a greater depth. Depending on your performance, you’ll also be seen as trustworthy and loyal.

It is recommended that you spend at least 15 years at a company to achieve this level. This is a general rule of thumb and will vary depending on the company and the industry. A barrier to this pathway is predictability. When you spend this amount of time with a company, it’s easy to fall into patterns and ways of thinking.

To reach the C-suite and be successful, you need to be able to adapt and change as the business does. If you can’t, you may go down with the ship. This makes a nice segway to the next pathway.

External Recruitment/Free Agent

External recruitment is another common pathway to reaching the C-suite level. There are several reasons a company may choose this method of recruitment, but typically it comes down to one of two reasons:

  • Lack of internal candidates.
  • The desire for change/fresh ideas.

If you feel you are unable to climb further at your current company, the grass may be greener at another business. You may be hired straight into a C-suite role or you may be required to serve some time under someone before taking the next step.

Choosing this path can be a double-edged sword. To a new company, you’re exciting and fresh. You’ll be empowered to bring your ideas to the table and make your mark on the business.

However, as an outsider, you are a relatively unknown entity, which can be seen as a risk. This may result in higher expectations of performance and you will need time to establish the trust of your colleagues.

What qualities do I need for a C-Suite Position?

There is a variety of skills and experience you need to be successful in a C-Suite position, however, there are four core qualities you need in a C-Suite position. If you don’t develop these qualities, you will struggle to reach the C-suite level:

  1. You need to have a proven track record of success. This will not be your first management position. So you need to be able to demonstrate that you have been successful on various projects and with multiple teams in the past.
  2. You need in-depth knowledge of and experience in your industry and department. If you have no marketing experience, you can’t expect to be made the CMO of a business. Likewise, if your experience is entirely in retail, it will be hard to make the jump into the software sector (as an example). Although you’ll have transferable skills, you need this knowledge and experience as a foundation for decision making.
  3. Strong Leadership Skills. This is a leadership position above all else, so you need to be able to identify a clear and achievable goal. You then, need to be able to develop and execute a strategy to achieve that goal – even if you are delegating many of the tasks required to achieve it.
  4. Strong business acumen. Simply being an expert in one area of the business is not enough. You need to understand how the various departments and functions of the business work together and impact each other.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to putting yourself on the path to the C-suite, it’s important to make yourself as well rounded as possible. As we’ve discussed, there isn’t one thing that you’ll need to be promoted, but instead, several core qualities and experience in your field of choice. Always be open to learn, grow, and adapt. Find your own path and who knows, you may arrive at that promotion you’ve been dreaming of sooner than you think!

We will delve deeper into the C-suite in further posts, so stay tuned for more info!

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Scott Williams

Scott Williams

I’m an independent owner of Food Recruit - Search & Selection. Passionate about the Food Manufacturing industry having spent time as a Supply Chain Manager and Business Development Manager for two of the UK’s largest meat importers. High Care, Low Care, Chilled and Ambient I have worked across all markets including B2B, Foodservice, Wholesale and Retail.

I fell into recruitment in 2016 to start a Food & Drink desk in a long-standing Engineering Recruitment business in the West Midlands. Progressing on to Business Development Manager covering multiple markets before starting my own agency in September 2020.