By David Kinley
People hoping to break into the upper ranks of management often lament that it’s a revolving door of the same old candidates. Not so.
The Great Resignation has thinned the ranks. An era of specialty has led to a shortage of experienced general managers. And every company is on the hunt for A-level talent to diversify its leadership team.
As the head of an executive-search firm, I am seeing this play out.
In many ways, the opportunity to rise has never been better. Here’s how aspiring executives can do it, and how upper management and company boards can identify promising talent.
Demand new challenges
In our parents’ generation, companies like IBM /zigman2/quotes/203856914/composite IBM +0.49% and Nortel grew their own executives. Rising managers might relocate five times, giving them the chance to build new teams, communicate effectively with different business silos, and understand every corner of the business.
Today, companies are growing too fast to train new leaders. Top talent are siloed away in their specialties, with little opportunity to build general management skills across the organization. And those who show early promise are often poached by competitors.
Combat this by taking the initiative. Demand new challenges on a regular basis, whether they’re geographic, in developing new products, or learning new skills entirely. If you’re a VP of marketing, ask to work in finance. If you’re an executive in IT, petition to work in sales. These are opportunities to build your reputation in new places with new management teams, setting you apart.
Continuing education is a signature of a great candidate. It shows you’re curious, eager to learn, and intellectually honest — key criteria for C-suite consideration.
Top-flight schools like Stanford and Columbia offer courses that can complement your skill set. Finance people can learn tech. PR execs can study product development. Corporations, after all, are interdependent. You don’t want to be seen as a one-dimensional leader whose talents begin and end with your specialty. If you’re a salesperson who can’t read a P&L, you’re showing you’re not ready for broader responsibilities.
Companies like Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.48% have thousands of managers. That’s your competition for getting to the next level. You won’t distinguish yourself by playing it safe.
The silver lining is that most companies are short-staffed, making it an ideal time to take on added responsibilities, introducing yourself to the broader organization.
Ask to lead projects no one else wants to touch, from instituting new enterprise-wide software to tackling an underperforming division. It’s a chance to mount a team from finance to HR, building trust beyond the group you’re always working with.
If you’re the one continually raising your hand, you’re sure to get noticed.
Expand your exposure
A decade ago, networking events were packed affairs. You were just another face in the crowd. Now, due to Covid and remote work, 10 people might attend.
Yet the top players are still showing up, knowing these events are critical to remaining on the cutting edge of the profession. This is your chance to find mentors and meet your industry’s brightest minds.
Introduce yourself to the powerful
Board members are often involved in C-suite hiring. The best way to meet them: Volunteer for nonprofit boards.
When a C-suite opening arises, those boards are the first places executives go. They first survey that group for possible candidates, then they ask the remaining board members for names of A-level talent that may be under the radar. Here’s your chance to be added to either of those lists.
If companies are shorthanded, nonprofits are even more so. Yet their boards are filled with smart and powerful people. You’ll get to know them on a more intimate basis, learning from their wisdom and demonstrating your own.
Maybe you’ve hit a glass ceiling. Maybe the aforementioned avenues aren’t available at your company. Now is the time to showcase your tolerance for risk.
With the economy in upheaval, companies are increasingly leery of making the wrong C-suite hire. They’re hedging their bets by hiring interim executives, who are often brought on to handle a specific project, be it a merger or the rebuilding of an underperforming division.
Taking a temporary post shows you have the courage to step outside the box, to take on initiatives that others shy away from. You’re burnishing your skills, learning new organizations, establishing your ability to thrive in any situation. These jobs often become permanent. If they don’t, you’ve still widened your marketability and base of knowledge.
In my experience, few companies want the same old people. They’re making succession plans and hoping to fill them with new blood. These days, perhaps 70% of the candidates I’m placing are diverse.
With chronic staffing shortages, companies are under enormous pressure to grow their talent pools and diversify their management. The C-suite is opening up like never before.
Your job: Prove you’re ready.
David Kinley is the CEO of Bluenose & Co.