With Martin G. Moore

Episode #208

Breaking into the C-Suite: What you should know

We get an incredible number of questions from our podcast community about career development. Working out how to progress in your career can be as daunting as it is mystifying. We often see other people getting promoted, and wonder how that’s even possible.

When you start to get up to the rarified air of the C-suite, it’s even harder: there’s more quality competition for fewer roles.

So, what’s the secret? How can you position yourself for a C-level role, and what would you have to do, today, to start moving in that direction (assuming it’s what you ultimately want)?

In this episode, I outline a few of the many paths that will take you to the executive level, I cover the key area of relationships and politics, and I share my five rules of thumb for breaking into the C-suite!


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Episode #208 Breaking into the C-Suite: What you should know

Working out how to progress in your career can be as daunting as it is mystifying. We often see other people getting promoted and wonder how that’s even possible! When you start to get up to the rarefied air of the C-suite, it’s even harder. There’s more quality competition for fewer roles. So what’s the secret? How can you position yourself for a C-level role? And what would you have to do today to start moving in that direction, if it’s ultimately what you want?


Let’s face it, anyone can register a business and give themselves a title. You’ll see many CEOs, executive directors and principal consultants who are in a company of one. And look, that’s fine. If you go out on your own, it’s your prerogative to call yourself whatever you like. It’s a lot of fun to watch too! If you’ve got half an hour to kill sometime, scroll through LinkedIn and check it out – it’s mildly hilarious.

Many years ago, I had the misfortune of catching an episode of a TV show called The Millionaire Matchmaker. To say it was cringeworthy doesn’t even begin to describe it. But one thing really caught my funny bone: the job titles. Now, the company at the centerpiece of the show was running the matchmaking process. And as far as I could tell, it had four employees – guess what their titles were? There was:

  • The CEO

  • The Chief Operating Officer

  • The Vice President of Matchmaking

  • The Vice President of Administration

I couldn’t actually see any other employees in the picture. It was a micro business, just with a bunch of inflated job titles.

Job titles should imply a set of responsibilities and activities. And this is both in terms of the scope and the scale of the role. That’s why a CEO title is fine – because it tells us more about the scope of the role than it does about its scale. It tells anyone who wants to know that the individual with that designation is accountable for everything the company does, and it’s pretty useful for an external person to know that. Now, of course, Emma Green is the CEO of our business, Your CEO Mentor, and it’s absolutely the right title. She’s accountable for every aspect of the business’s operations, marketing, content, finance, HR… the whole shooting match.

When it comes to other titles, though, there are also some implications of scale. A Chief Operating Officer title for example, would imply that there’s actually something substantial to operate. Just think of the difference between being a COO with a team of one, to being a COO with a team of 10,000, organized into five or six layers spread across four continents. Be aware of the fallacy of the title: it might be easy to get, but that may bear little relationship to the actual job in terms of accountability, complexity, and of course, remuneration.

There’s also a trend towards more creative titles that are completely laughable. Chief Heart Officer, Chief Product Evangelist, Chief Customer Cheerleader… the titles are becoming more and more outlandish as time goes on. And as they do, we lose any sense of what the accountabilities of the role are. The whole purpose of the role name, which is to give clarity around what you do, is diluted in the world of fancy titles that tell us absolutely nothing.

In the world of large corporations, there’s actually a structure to names that helps people both inside and outside of a firm to understand the level of responsibility and the function the role is designed to fulfill. For example, a Chief Investment Officer makes decisions about how, and where, a financial fund invests its customers’ money. They’d usually have teams of investment analysts reporting to them. And, you know because of the ‘chief’ designation, that this is the most senior person in the organization with that accountability. Likewise, the CFO is the most senior financial person in the organization, and so on.

Below these roles, there can be a very structured hierarchy of levels and accountabilities. I worked in one large organization where senior leaders were particularly concerned with their title designation – and with good reason. Those who reported directly to the CEO were designated as ‘Executive Vice Presidents’ and they were paid accordingly. They were the $1.5 million to $2.5 million per annum roles, once you take into account short term incentives and share options. Below them were the ‘Senior Vice Presidents’, and they were the $750,000 to $1 million a year roles. And below them were the ‘Vice Presidents’, and they were the $400,000 to $700,000 roles.

So what’s in a title? Well, clearly it can be quite a bit. But the responsibilities and scope of a role are, in most cases, very different at each of those levels. You can see that makes a big difference to money and status, and it can create quite a cutthroat political environment.


The C-suite is a term used to identify the senior executive levels of an organization. Generally they’re direct reports to the CEO, but not always. For example, in one role as a Chief Information Officer, I reported to the CEO, but in another, I reported to the CFO, and was a level removed from the CEO. But in both cases, it was the most senior technology role in the company. This is also common for roles like Chief Legal Officer, Chief HR Officer and Chief Procurement Officer.

In one Senior Vice President role, I sat on the company’s executive team, even though I reported to an Executive Vice President, and in another Senior Vice President role, I wasn’t on the executive team. So all of this is dependent upon a company’s size and structure. For me, I define the C-suite as being either the highest level role for your function in the organization, or being a member of the top management team, however that’s defined.


There are many ways to end up in the C-suite. Probably the most common, and the most reliable, is to join a company where you start in a technical role as say, an accountant, or lawyer, engineer, marketing officer, commercial analyst et cetera, and work your way up. So you just work hard, and wait for your promotions.

In larger organizations, it can take many years, as you may have five or six layers to traverse. And at each new layer, you’re in competition for the next spot above you with a bunch of other smart, ambitious people from both inside and outside your organization. So it can take a long time. And with the fickle nature of business these days, the average longevity of individuals in any single company is declining.

I have a little rule of thumb about this that I want to share with you, and I think it’s quite important. If you want to go up a level, or if you want to change the job family you are in, you need to do that in the same organization that you are in now. Landing a role in another company where you have no proof of performance is a much longer putt. By the other token, if you want to get a similar role at the same level, but maybe in a bigger company with better pay and conditions, then you need to move to another company to do it, obviously. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but this is generally the way it works.

Think about this process from the perspective of the leaders making the decisions about who they put in a particular role… Being given an opportunity to do something different, either at a new level or in a different job function, is much more likely when the people making that decision know you, and know what you’re capable of. Otherwise, the risk for them is just too high.

If you’re going to a company that doesn’t know you, they’ll want to see a track record of performance. You’ll effectively need to prove that you’ve already done the job they’re wanting to hire you to do there. It’s an interesting conundrum, right?


Although I would never hold my career path up as something you should try to emulate, there are some interesting learnings to take out of it. Some of my best moves were effectively horizontal, but they enabled me to gain new experience that I needed in order to progress in my career.

Let me just explain. To be considered for a CEO role, most companies would like to see one of two things, either:

  1. You’ve come from a finance background and you’ve operated successfully at the CFO level. So you understand the breadth of the business and how it makes its money. Or,

  2. You’ve demonstrated that you can run a business, usually in more than one context. For example, you may have run a geographical region like EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). Or you may have run a component of a business, like a product or service line where you’ve had full accountability for the breadth of operations.

I had a functional problem. Given my career had basically been in staff roles – and even at the executive level, having accountability for IT, financial back office processing or procurement – I hadn’t demonstrated that I could actually run a business, a profit and loss statement (P&L). I’d never run one, so I needed to show that I could do that.

I was offered a role as Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at an ASX Top 30 listed company. This was a line role with P&L accountability. And I was able to demonstrate in a few short years that I was up to the job, that I could drive commercial returns, and that I could work across the breadth of accountabilities that this seniority demanded. I could win customers, I could work productively with operations, legal, commercial, and HR. This was my springboard to the CEO office.

But let’s just think about this for a minute. If I hadn’t already been working in that organization, if the people above me hadn’t had three years to assess my performance, and see how I did things, I never would’ve been assigned to that Senior Vice President role. And without that role on my CV, with a demonstrated track record of success, it’s unlikely that I would’ve been considered for the CEO role at CS Energy, even though it was a smaller company.

Having said all of that, what’s the best path to the C-suite? Well, before CEO level, it’s about getting to the top of your chosen discipline: CFO, COO CIO, CPO, et cetera. For the moment, just remember that you should begin with the end in mind. So even before you’re in the field of vision for a CEO role, have a think about how your current functional or operational role might position you for that.


In any successful career, there are people behind the scenes who I call patrons. You actually need to have the patronage of someone in your organization who’s more senior than you are. And that should at least be your direct manager, but it doesn’t end there.

I’ve been in so many rooms where the executive team has discussed organizational talent and made decisions about development opportunities and promotability. At the very least, you need the leaders above you to be talking about you in glowing terms. You want them to be talking up your performance, your attitude, your behaviors, your readiness for the next level. In these days of participation trophies, and ‘every child gets a prize’, make no mistake – these processes are highly competitive. You don’t want your boss to be saying, “Oh yeah, Marty’s pretty good. But Emma is the real talent that we need to nurture here.”

Equally, when your executive says, “Hey, Marty’s on the fast track. Great performance and he’s demonstrating all the right stuff for the next level,” the last thing you want is another executive to chime in and say, “Yeah, I don’t really see Marty that way. He’s not that good to work with,” or, “Yeah, Marty’s okay. But he stuffed up this project for my team.” How to build these relationships is another topic altogether, but you get the picture, right?

One other thing that’s important to recognize is the role that politics plays. Most large organizations are highly political, and those talent management sessions can make or break your opportunities (in that organization, at least). You’ve got a group of powerful people sitting around a table, deciding the fate of those outside the room. And sometimes it’s based on nothing more than opinion, assertion, and conjecture. I’ve sat through that as well.

What you have to remember is that if you are doing your job really well, this may present a threat to people around you. And sometimes, they’ll stop at nothing to discredit you, or to taint your reputation. I’ve had that happen to me on more than one occasion. My rule of thumb for this is never play politics, but always be aware of the politics. It’s almost brought me undone more than once in my career, and I was lucky to get out of some of those situations as well as I did. But there is no substitute for performance – and keep your eyes open for that inevitable jealous player who has the boss’s ear and is going to do everything they can do to bring you down.


Here are my tips for being executive ready:

1. Relationship building 

If you want to get noticed, deliver results – period. Do more than the next person is willing to do, build great relationships and make sure you have a patron.

2. Acquire the knowledge 

When you move into a C-level role, or you are on an executive team, you have to be able to contribute more broadly than just your familiar functional area. You need to at least be financially literate: understand the basics of investment analysis and be comfortable reading a balance sheet in a P&L, understand cash flow and working capital. But there’s also a lot to be said for knowing marketing, business law, HR, asset management, et cetera. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to contribute.

I highly recommend a field of study that’s going to give you this depending on your strengths and aspirations – an MBA, a Masters of Applied Finance… whatever it is for you. My MBA was a critical part of my development. Not because I needed the extra qualification, but because I needed to learn a bunch of stuff I didn’t know. And it gave me the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any individual about their own discipline. So, whereas I couldn’t necessarily be a lawyer, I could understand and converse confidently with a senior lawyer about legal issues. This is what enables you to add value in an executive team situation. Being able to weigh in on holistic issues, not just riding in on your own hobby horse.

Remember executives wear two hats. The first is full functional accountability for their own portfolio. But the second is the hat that says you have to help the CEO run the company as senior officers of the business. Executives have both individual and team responsibilities.

3. Know the business

This is really an extension of the previous point, but it merits its own focus. You need to have a deep understanding of how the business makes money, how it competes in its markets and where there might be opportunities for improvement. If you don’t know your business really well, you’ll always run second to one of the many people who do.

4. Think and engage at the next level

I talk a lot about the difference between workhorses and trusted advisors. You don’t want to be seen as a workhorse. They’re good soldiers who do what they’re told, consistently and reliably. They don’t argue or challenge. They just deliver what you tell them to – and make no mistake, organizations love workhorses. But workhorses don’t often get promoted. They are so essential to the results their team’s delivering that removing them would be too risky and costly.

Workhorses are sort-of stuck where they are. Trusted advisors, on the other hand, show that they understand the issues at the next level up. They push back when appropriate, and they add real value to their bosses and their bosses’ peers. They’re looking up and out rather than in and down. But make no mistake, they still work hard – they just work hard on different things.

5. Learn to get results through people

This is basically my life now – teaching leaders how to get results through people. Unless you show that you can multiply your effectiveness and leverage the resources you have, you are unlikely to be earmarked for the fast track to the C-suite. The systematic leadership framework that I’ve devised in No Bullsh!t Leadership is, in my humble opinion, the key to successfully getting high performance and exceptional results from the people you lead.

I love nothing more than running the two public cohorts of Leadership Beyond the Theory that Emma and I conduct each year. We’ve put huge amounts of time, energy, and resources into making this the number one leadership program on the planet. So if you want to get serious about improving your leadership, confidence and skills rapidly, with practical tools and strategies, you might want to check it out.

Your career path will have many twists and turns – and it never pans out the way you might have thought it would. It’s always slower and harder than you ever could have imagined. That’s why you need to think systematically about how to move levels. Keeping your head down and working hard is a pretty poor recipe. Likewise, jumping organizations in search of that elusive dream role is unlikely to get you where you want.

So, be deliberate about the choices you make, decide what you want, and do the things that take you closer to that. There are no real shortcuts, and there are many landmines along the way, but if it’s something you really want, you’ll get there. Be patient, and keep growing and challenging yourself every single day. That is a no regrets move.


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