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Are You Headed for the C-suite?

If you're not, you should be. Here are five areas to focus on to fast-forward your journey to the top. By Judy Giannetto | Digital Exclusive

Fast Forward

You’re in the middle of what’s shaping up to be a brilliant career. You can see the door to the corner office from where you’re sitting, and you’re just itching to step up and step in. And while such things don’t happen overnight, there are skills and qualities that may earmark you as tomorrow’s captain of industry in the eyes of the powers that be. Here are just five to work on.

1. Know It All – Well, Most of It Anyway

So, it goes without saying that you need to know the technical side of the finance function, but diving deep into every facet of the business environment is a feat worthy of Captain Marvel, right? Maybe not.

“That’s a skill that best comes from experience gained across multiple finance roles,” explains the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants in its report, Future Pathways for Financial Leadership, conducted with the Institute of Management Accountants. “Almost half of today’s CFOs have had six or more finance roles during their career, 80% have had a finance role in more than one organisation and almost three quarters have finance experience in more than one industry.

“Strategy formulation and execution was identified by current CFOs as the most important area in which to have experience for future CFOs,” the report continues. And that means moving “in and out of the finance organisation, building the commercial qualities needed, and of course the internal relationships.” In order to transform the future you into the future CFO, you’re going to have to prove your abilities reach far beyond the finance function.

Numbers still rule in major decision-making, however. Which means you’ll continue to need a healthy dose of analytical skill, and a proven ability to “extrapolate data to drive better decision making” (this is the age of big data after all). Armed with this formidable arsenal of skills and range of knowledge, you’re pretty much an unstoppable force on the path to the c-suite.

2. Get a Little Touchy Feely

I sometimes wish they weren’t called soft skills—things like relationship-building, active listening, verbal and written communication, diplomacy, etc., etc. “Soft”” isn’t exactly the most power-inspiring word in the dictionary. At least, not on the face of it

However, maximizing your emotional quotient or EQ is the very thing that can give you the greatest of all powers—that of influence.

As diversity of background, ethnicity and experience, etc. becomes increasingly important to the strategic success of organizations worldwide, your ability to communicate effectively with varied audiences and stakeholders skyrockets in value. The act of communicating has never been so important.

Where do you start? Aside from formal soft skills training, watch the nuances of your higher ups as they negotiate deals and iron out differences of opinion, read up on body language, and understand all those nonverbal, subliminal cues that are the core of soft skills acumen. Remember, the strength of a handshake can make or break a deal; listening intently versus fiddling with your pen can win you the big client; communicating calmly and supportively can mean the loyalty of your colleagues now and well into the future.

3. Know All the Right People

You’ll reach many milestones on the road to the C-suite, from landing your first job to winning that prized board seat. And, more likely than not, you’ll have your network to thank for them.

Now, building a network and enjoying networking are two entirely different things. The idea of “putting yourself out there” doesn’t sit all that comfortably with the vast majority of us. But there’s really no easy way around it. You need to bite the bullet and make those face-to-face connections—and seal them with a handshake (a real one, not a virtual one).

How do you meet the influencers of today and tomorrow? The simplest method is to join a professional association (the Illinois CPA Society should be top of your list of course) and a few targeted business clubs where you might rub shoulders with both peers and the business elite. That said, simply joining won’t win you any promotions. You need to attend social functions, sign up for seminars and roundtable discussions, join committees and task forces, and generally get involved. Though intimidating at first, remember that these are like-minded people with the same goal as you—to meet people and make great connections.

Volunteering is another great way to expand your network. Choose a cause or a nonprofit organization you are passionate about and explore opportunities to serve on their boards. These boards are usually made up of professionals from multiple disciplines—entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, finance gurus, legal masterminds, etc.—which gives you an opportunity for low-pressure, one-on-one networking with individuals from outside your immediate industry.

Other than the obvious forums, pretty much every facet of life offers the opportunity for networking—walking your dog, watching your kids’ soccer match, treating yourself to a day at the spa, for example. Often the best business connections you make are the ones you weren’t even aware you were making. The truly important thing is to recognize them when you do.

4. Be Credible

“Every action or perceived inaction shapes credibility,” said Mindy Hall, Ph.D., in her book Leading With Intention: Every Moment is a Choice. To build yourself up as a future leader, you need a foundation of work ethic, collaboration and patience. These are the elements that could rocket fuel your rise. First, work hard. Sounds like I’m stating the obvious? You’re wrong. You have to be humble enough to take on the less-than-glamorous tasks and assignments, to show you see the bigger picture, you’re hungry to learn, and you’re willing to do what needs to get done—to the very best of your abilities. That kind of commitment never, ever goes unnoticed. Put in the extra effort, and you will be rewarded, if not today, then tomorrow, when that choice assignment or promotion everyone really wants comes your way.

Humility comes into play again when we’re talking about team-building and collaboration. What goes around comes around, which means that helping out your colleagues whenever you can is sure to bring a boatload of ROI your way—whether in terms of help with a project in the short term, or lifelong loyalty in the long term. Make life easier for everyone and you instantly create good karma—and great value.

Most importantly, though, be patient. Your rise to the top won’t happen overnight. Don’t get discouraged and don’t let your antsiness show.

5. Find Your Champion

Ok, so, you’ve heard the word “mentor” ad nauseum. And you get it. You need someone who’s been there and done that to help guide you on the path to glory. But people being people, it’s important to find just the right match. Some of you may be lucky enough to work for a Plante Moran or PwC, where mentor/mentee matching programs are tried, tested and seamless. But if that’s not the case, where do you find your very own career champion?

The first thing to remember is that “anyone can be a mentor,” explains Rose Cammarata, CPA, CGMA, VP & Contoller with Mattersight, a member of the ICPAS Board of Directors, and INSIGHT Magazine columnist. “A mentor is someone you respect and trust, and who is able to serve as a role model for a particular skill or to provide objective advice on a particular topic—irrespective of their years of experience relative to yours.

Another important point: “Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal,” says Cammarata. “Many of my mentoring relationships…had their start with an offer of Starbucks and a shared interest in a topic that I knew the other person was experienced with.”

Mentors will appear in all shapes, sizes and guises on life's journey. Which means you should grab your double-skim latte, open your mind, and start building your network of career advisors, guiders and champions today.