How to Take the First Step Up to the Executive Level

How to Take the First Step Up to the Executive Level

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There was once a time when people received corporate promotions just because they were “next in line” for the role. Thankfully this is now usually the exception rather than the rule, and today, people are promoted for their skills, knowledge, and experience.  

However, this also means that as an experienced mid-level manager, you can easily find yourself at the same desk, in the same role, year in and year out while colleagues pass you by on their way to a corner office. So, what can you do if you feel ready to advance to a director-level post?  

While there are no guarantees, there are some ways to make your first step up to the executive level more likely and expedient. 

Research Job Descriptions 

Begin by reviewing as many job postings for executive-level positions as you can. Take note of the experience and qualifications required for all posts, and then make an additional list of the desirable attributes for the kinds of jobs you aspire to. 

For example, if you are a financial professional, you will have one list of general qualifications and a supplemental list of requirements for directors of finance, chief financial officers, and other finance-specific executive roles. 

Once you have a clear idea of what companies are looking for, you can begin to position yourself as the next member of the executive team. 

Take Stock

Take a long, hard, honest look at your list and how you stack up against the job requirements. Don’t sugarcoat the truth if there are gaps in your education, skills, or experience.  

For an accurate analysis, consider working with an objective outsider, such as a trusted colleague or career coach. Seek forthright and supportive feedback, and then focus on a strategy for self-improvement. 

Some of the following steps can help you advance to the executive level: 

1. Look For Opportunities 

Look for opportunities to demonstrate leadership in your current role. For example: 

  1. Offer to train or mentor new hires or new managers. 
  2. Take the lead on projects that suit your skills. 
  3. Identify ways to unify your team, especially if that team comprises of people with disparate or conflicting priorities. 

2. Support Others 

A true leader will not focus on their own development to the exclusion and detriment of those around them. Taking the time to mentor and support other people in your organization demonstrates your focus on the success of the company over personal successes. 

3. Request Management Training  

Ask for senior management training to put yourself on the executive team’s radar. If further training is available, find out how you can qualify and apply. 

If your organization doesn’t have any formalized senior management training, or if you are unable to secure a spot, investigate similar programs with other companies, professional certifications, or college courses. 

4. Find a Mentor 

By finding a mentor within your company, you’ll build a relationship with someone who can provide knowledge and insight. Mentors are also in a position to champion their mentees in the boardroom so that when a job opens up, you’re top of . 

5. Network 

For years, people have been extolling the virtues of networking, but just because it’s an old piece of advice doesn’t mean it’s not still relevant. If anything, networking done right is more powerful today than it has ever been—but “done right” is the critical phrase. 

Networking is not about filling your phone with the names and numbers of people you’ve met and then never speaking with them again. Nor is it about seeking those with whom you feel a connection will be beneficial to you. 

The majority of people are astute enough to recognize those who are only “in it for themselves,” and, as a result, will be unlikely to invest the time and energy involved in building a relationship with you. 

6. Attend Events 

Attend business and industry events such as trade organization meet-ups, Board of Trade or Chamber of Commerce meetings, etc.  

This step is slightly different from networking because you aren’t looking to build connections—although you may do so inadvertently—but because you want to broaden your knowledge and improve.  

7. Speak at Events 

The ability to resonate with a variety of audiences is a critical attribute of a successful executive. To expand your communications skillset while raising your profile, look for speaking opportunities at trade conferences, local industry groups, etc.  

Public speaking demonstrates confidence and your ability to take complex ideas and communicate them effectively. 

8. Show the “Write” Stuff 

Showcase your ability to convey information in written form by identifying opportunities to write in newsletters, blogs, trade publications, etc., and publishing your ideas. Writing creates a chance for you to position yourself as a thought leader in the industry and may even generate a variety of evidential opportunities. It boosts your profile and personal brand. 

9. Join a Board 

Finding a position on the board of a non-profit, charity, or trade association will expand your horizons and allow you to contribute to the broader community. It will also position you in an executive-type role, making it easier for you to project an executive presence. 

10. Consult to Other Organizations 

If a suitable board position is not available, or you are unable to make a long-term commitment, look for ways to contribute your knowledge, skills, and experience to other organizations.  

For example, you could volunteer to train a charity’s board in the legal aspects of their roles, provide financial record-keeping to a nonprofit, or act as the communications officer for a trade association. 

Make sure you review the terms of your contract and NDA before partnering with outside organizations.

11. Establish Relationships With Recruitment Firms 

Companies hire recruitment specialists and firms to find the best candidates. They work for the companies that employ them, not for the potential recruits. 

Don’t contact a recruitment firm with the idea of finding a new job. Instead, establish a relationship with a number of recruiters, keeping them up to date with your achievements and professional progress. This way, when a suitable role arises, you will already be on their radar. 

12. Take a Higher-Level View 

Don’t spend your time at work running around trying to do everything yourself. Instead, show how you can take responsibility but have also put together a competent team on which you can rely, freeing yourself for more strategic thinking and actions. 

13. Create Executive Presence 

Show yourself to be “executive material” by dressing and behaving in the same ways as the existing executives in your organization. 

Practice a calm, competent demeanor, speak up in meetings, and don’t shy away from new types of assignments. 

14. Re-Work Your Resume 

Instead of laying out your resume according to the positions you’ve held, concentrate on the real-life examples of your impact on the company. Practice communicating your achievements in succinct, compelling snapshots that show how your qualities would transfer to an executive role.  

Then, share this information at suitable moments. Practice to make the pitch sound natural. 

15. Optimize Your Online Presence 

Audit your social media feeds and remove anything that may counter the company’s culture or seem inappropriate for a person in an executive role. Consider keeping separate personal and professional accounts, providing only your professional profile information to recruiters. 

Additionally, follow LinkedIn best practices to ensure you position yourself as an executive. 

To take your first step up to the executive level, you need to identify ways to improve your image and skills. Once you’ve achieved those goals, the only point left is to find the right opportunities.  

Ivy Exec can help you locate executive-level positions with resume writing services, one-on-one coaching, and executive job boards. Learn more about what’s available with a membership package


Patti Barnes
About the Author
Patti Barnes

Patti Barnes has spent much of her career working with management systems, first in the creation and implementation of management systems and later as an auditor against international standards. After a sidestep into the economic evaluation of environmental resources, and the psychology of social media, she became a consultant to both private industries and governments. Patti now spends her time between advisory roles, writing about the ways in which professionals can best position themselves for a successful career in today's complex and connected world.

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