“Where do you see yourself in five years?” We’ve all heard this question, but it’s one to seriously consider when looking to move to a senior leadership role. Getting to the top position in a company is an aspiration for many, but while you may have overcome numerous challenges throughout your career, the role as a senior leader presents countless more. But before getting to that point, it is essential to first show you have what it takes to successfully lead the people and the organisation into the future.
The skills to set you apart
You can put yourself ahead of the rest and take your career further – it just takes preparation. Here are some key areas to focus on:
1. Develop a strategy
You are probably familiar with the term ‘career mapping’, a strategy to set goals and develop skills to further your career. Have a solid vision for yourself and the company and outline how you aim to achieve it. For example, consider possible advances in the future and how you can use these to move the company forward – or recognise areas you could improve on personally and work through how best to do this.
2. Embrace growth
Don’t rely on what got you here to take you to that next role. Be open to learning and improving your skills to keep up with emerging trends. 42% of the top Fortune 100 chiefs have MBA degrees. An Executive MBA will build on your business knowledge and help to develop international contacts - essential now when business is global. You should be interested and committed to your continuing professional development, and if it’s not to be an MBA then consider other research, stretch projects or learning activities.
3. Establish your purpose
Why do you want to be a senior leader? Simple ambition is not enough. Picture yourself five years into the role – how have you progressed and what have you done to improve the organisation? Use a coach, mentor or advisor for an objective assessment. Ask yourself what’s driven you so far? How have you reacted to and overcome challenges? This is valuable as it develops self-awareness and mental resilience for future interviews, engagements and psychological assessments.
4. Build your professional image
It takes just seven seconds to form a first impression – and a tenth of a second to judge if you’re trustworthy. To be a senior leader it is essential for others to have confidence in you – this is where the shoots of gravitas and credibility start. In the digital age, personal branding is key. Maintain your social profiles so they are consistent with how you want to present yourself professionally. Connect with colleagues who challenge you and present new perspectives but have similar core brand values. This will provide others with a clear image of who you are personally and professionally.
5. Be the leader you want to be – now
A Bates study revealed that authenticity and integrity are the two most outstanding qualities in leaders of high growth organisations. The best leaders inspire their teams to develop by gaining trust and respect. Focus more on your people and the results will follow . Trust and respect go both ways. Don’t be afraid to delegate – this builds your team’s strength and shows your confidence in them; you trust and respect their views and opinions. By challenging your people with new opportunities, the team’s overall skillset will improve.
What makes a successful senior leader?
Figure out what makes a successful CEO and implement these aspects in your current role. This prepares you for your future role and demonstrates that you understand what it demands. Successful CEOs who take bold moves early on, show confidence and willingness to take calculated risks. This also goes for organising your team – for example, almost 50% of senior leaders wish they had let go of underperformers faster. According to a study by McKinsey, CEOs who make these moves earlier in their tenure outperform those who take action later. When you can make changes, it strengthens your team and sends a message that you have clear standards.
But risk-taking and making swift decisions shouldn’t be confused for recklessness. The word “agility” tends to be overused these days but is often misunderstood. Rather than sacrificing stability for quick decision-making, a balance of thinking makes for success. Organisations that combine speed and stability are three times more likely to rank in the top quartile in terms of organisational health than those that act quickly yet are deficient in stable practices.
Top CEOs also ensure their teams are cohesive. Why? Teams that work towards a shared objective are almost twice as likely to achieve above average financial performance. This means not letting bias get in the way and being prepared to make tough calls. It also means assessing your team on a regular basis, so you always have tabs on areas that need improving, and what is working.
How to prepare for a top leadership role
Studying that top spot – the CEO – establishes a precedent for other senior leadership roles. Potential CEOs often lack external experience, such as managing client relationships, gaining knowledge of the corporate brand, and communicating with the media and analysts. The ability to communicate with external audiences is a strong asset that will get you noticed and will raise the profile of your organisation. Experience in public speaking and dealing with the media, are essential. It’s a good idea to speak with a mentor to create a plan which will give you more experience in the public eye and increase your visibility
As well as presenting to your current board and participating in meetings, put time into gaining external board management expertise. This will provide you with insight and understanding of how boards function and prepare you for future responsibilities. It will also be easier for the board to imagine working with you when you demonstrate experience in this arena.
When you aim to step into a senior leadership role, it pays to prepare carefully. Those hiring – whether externally or internally – are looking for well-rounded individuals who already demonstrate senior capabilities. Hone your current skills, embrace further development and aim to continue this as you progress throughout your career to ensure future success as a senior leader.