It Can Be Done–How To Get To The Top With A Clean Conscience

It turns out you don’t have to step on people on your way up the corporate ladder.

It Can Be Done–How To Get To The Top With A Clean Conscience
[Photo: Flickr user mathiasbaert]

The old cliché says that you can’t get to the C-suite without leaving a few bodies in your wake–but is that really true? There are, of course, many executives who got there through brute force, which is why if you’re a mid-level employee looking up, the task of landing a corner office without compromising your ethics can seem daunting.


As a partner at an executive search firm, I work daily with people in exactly that position, helping them to find their next great role and to navigate the complex waters of nurturing a career in upper management. We also work with top-level leaders across the communications space, and the majority of them didn’t acquire countless enemies on their way to the top.

Through a careful balance of strategic thinking, social intelligence, honesty, and hard work you can make it to the top without becoming a cutthroat nightmare to work with. Here are the top pieces of advice we give our most exciting prospects:

1. How You Deal With Bureaucracy Will Be Remembered

There will be politics and bureaucracy to navigate in every leadership role, but as a leader you have to approach these challenges objectively and without emotion. It’s easy to get caught up in disgruntled conversations as you’re rising up the ladder, but my advice is: Don’t, especially when you find yourself in a position of leadership. Any example you set will perpetuate throughout the organization, so make sure it’s a positive one.

Easier said than done, you say? I won’t say you’re necessarily wrong. But if you can’t avoid getting heated, then at least learn from this.

I once confronted an executive for wanting to stunt the career development of an employee for the betterment of a client. Although the employee was ultimately provided a new account and learning experience, I still question whether my delivery could have been more thoughtful, methodical, and rational than the argument I’d posed that day.

2. Selective Communications Can Still Be Honest

Transitioning from mid-level management to the C-suite means that you have to put up new boundaries with colleagues. Selective communication and understanding when it’s appropriate to discuss sensitive matters is crucial. But you still need to be honest, particularly about issues that affect your team or the wider staff. You might not be able to give your team the whole story, but you can manage fears and avoid rumors. And for those decisions that are just hard or unpopular, honesty will ensure you come out the other end a respected leader.


The other element here is to understand the level of your team’s maturity and professionalism; is it strong enough to handle the information at hand? I have worked on teams where we’ve weathered many storms through transparency blended with team discretion. Unfortunately there have been others that have used half-truths to generate panic and dissension, which led to a lack of productivity and lot of angst.

Err on the side of caution and tread smartly when communicating.

3. You Can (And Should) Still Be Nurturing

As far as the core elements of your relationships are concerned, they don’t need to–and shouldn’t–change. As long as you continue to be respectful, courteous, willing to give time and listen to people, you will be able to ensure lasting professional relationships. You must make this a priority amongst your new responsibility set.

There are still ex-colleagues I will meet to this day, whether it’s to share stories, catch up, advise, or mentor, and I consider those times to be some of the most rewarding and productive of my career.

4. Choose Your Battles

There is no job that is without its struggles. Know which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t. Fighting them all will either slow your momentum or make your armor too thick. Learn how to read your audience and situation to decide when to push back and how to do it most effectively.

Learning how to choose your battles comes from pure trial and error, as well as honing your ability to read your audience. There was one executive with whom I worked that dominated conversations amongst colleagues. When I entered conversations with this executive, I would prepare clear, concise, and quick rationale to support my objective; I’d also try to inject a pithy phrase or term that would resonate above the noise. This strategy aided me in many a conversation battle.


5. Find A Company With Similar Goals And Values

Climbing to the top requires a massive amount of constant focus and work. It’s tough, but you can’t avoid long hours–no matter where you are. You can, however, avoid a toxic situation by finding a company that has similar values, goals, and culture to yourself. That’s the single best way to work up the ladder without compromising your personal beliefs.

In one instance, I jumped into a position for reasons not entirely thought through. Although I don’t believe any career decision to be erroneous–we all learn from our experiences–if I’d more heavily weighed my values, my work ethic and approach, and the leader I am against the values and work ethic of said company, I may have eliminated some stress for myself and others.

It is possible to work your way up that proverbial ladder to a well-deserved position of leadership; it may prove difficult in some instances, but rest assured you’ll learn more about yourself and the leader you want to be as you ascend.

Christine Stack is a partner at Liberty Blue, an executive search firm under the Grace Blue group. She spends her days following her passion of fulfilling the great potential of future leaders and clients in the communications industry.