If your goal is to climb the career ladder of success all the way to the top, chances are your path may not be direct. But it can also be hard to predict. “When you’re in the middle of an organization or even a few levels away, knowing what it takes to get into the C-suite becomes a bit of a black box,” says Cassandra Frangos, former head of the global executive talent practice at Cisco and author of Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make it to the Top. “Some think that it’s a straight line, and others think it’s a matter of luck or even politics—and at times it can be.”
However, having played a role in many C-suite successions, Frangos found that there isn’t always a one-size-fits-all approach. “All organizations are different, and every executive brings unique strengths,” she says. “It’s often a portfolio of experiences that you need to have as well as a lot of skill in terms of navigating different career paths.”
Frangos is the co-instructor of a new course at MIT Sloan School of Management’s Executive Education Program called “Charting Your Path to the C-Suite.” In it, she shares the four most common paths you can follow to reach the C-suite.
The tenured executive
The tenured path is where executives stay at company they love and find a great culture fit, says Frangos. This is also the most predictable and common path, with the majority of CEOs and other C-suite leaders promoted from within, including 69% of Fortune 100 CFOs, according to a study from CFO Journal.
This path also requires the most patience. While Frangos says internal hires that rise to the C-suite were identified as high performers within their first year, she also says they often spend more time in roles than those who take other paths. “Know how long you’ll be in line, and decide how long you’re willing to wait,” she advises.
For example, if you’re second in line, and the current CEO is young, well-liked, and only in the job for two years, it could take a while for you to be promoted. On the other hand, if your boss has been there for a decade and mentioned that they’d like to retire or do something new in the next couple of years, your time might be coming soon.
“You can’t control someone else’s succession,” says Frangos. “If you are a C-suite hopeful and there’s no spot opening up in your timeframe, it may be a signal to look elsewhere.”
The free agent
Free agents C-suite members reach a certain point at a company and then jump to another to continue their climb. They’re often recruited because the company is looking for an outsider’s perspective and ideas. “This path seems to be picking up steam, as 22% of CEOs between 2012 and 2015 were appointed from outside organizations,” says Frangos.
To be a free agent, you’ll need to demonstrate a flawless track record and reputation, says Frangos. “Also, [you’ll need to] develop your leadership brand in a more deliberate way compared with internal peers,” she says.
The leapfrog leader
Leapfrog Leaders pass over their peers as well as superiors, jumping several steps ahead based on their vision and potential. Frangos says this was the case when Chuck Robbins was appointed CEO of Cisco in 2015. Formerly the head of sales, Robbins jumped two spots ahead to take the top spot.
To be a leapfrog leader, you need to able to confront industry disruption and present yourself as a strong champion for change in the organization, says Frangos. This can be the most difficult path to execute because it’s not one you can plan for; you need to prepare for opportunities and be ready to seize them if and when they arise.
Perhaps the fastest track to the C-suite is to create your own. Founders start their own companies because they have an idea and a passion—not simply a desire to be a CEO.
With this type of career path, you have more control over the timing of your entrance to the C-suite. However, it requires different skills sets. You need to be entrepreneurial and have a willingness to take risk. You also must be willing to take on a wider range of responsibilities during your startup mode, as founders wear many hats.
Whatever path you take
Anyone headed to the C-suite should have a willingness to reinvent themselves, as well as the confidence to state their ambition, no matter which path they eventually take. The landscape of the C-suite is changing in terms of its dynamics and the way to think about leading, says Frangos.
“It’s not necessarily knowing all the answers; there’s too much information in the world, and the CEO can’t be all-knowing anymore,” she says. “It requires flexibility and agility. Boards and CEOs are searching for seasoned executives who possess a new mindset. Today companies must course-correct fast, fend off insurgent competitors, and have an intense customer focus. Leaders must be willing to self-correct and adapt to new leadership norms.”