the ceo magazine, leadership
Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gerschel

Want to get on "the list" to move up the executive team ladder? Our advice from coaching executive teams and leaders around the world is to act like you know you can be fired tomorrow.

That’s right, approach your job like you have a target on your back. Keeping that mindset will motivate you with kind of zeal and drive that’s critical for those who want to attain top leadership positions.

Here are four more tips for getting on the executive team and/or moving up the ranks in any organization:

  1. Don't be blackmailable – Don't do things in your personal or business life that would prevent you from getting on the list. For example, in coaching the executives at a $15B privately held manufacturer, the question arose who would lead if one of the owners died. The obvious choice was a guy who had risen through the ranks, but he was a playboy. The team didn’t want to risk having the company’s reputation ruined by his personal behavior, even though he was wildly popular, capable and talented. The playboy was also considered vulnerable because his staff could threaten to tell his wife about his affairs to get leverage over him. If you want to aim for the top, your life inside and outside work had better be impeccable or your opportunities can be compromised – no matter how good you are.
  2. Shut up and do something – Most leaders do a decent job for what they are asked, but not more. Then they expect to be promoted. They easily share their 'brilliance' about what senior leadership should do, yet they do nothing new or interesting. They don't take chances. The higher up you go the more competition there is. You need to be bold and take risks to stand out. An executive coaching client of ours in global HR at a Fortune 200 energy company is a great example. She doesn't say much or talk a lot. But when she does, she makes it count. She takes time to listen to the executive team, understand their challenges and assess what they need, what the issues are and what she can do in her role. Then she suggests practical steps that can be taken. After doing this this time and again over 18 months, she was promoted to be in charge of global HR. She has since transformed HR's reputation and has a true seat at the table.
  3. Accept every opportunity – The CEO of a tech start-up going through major growth asked his CTO to move to the new headquarter in Palo Alto. The CTO declined (he had moved for the company three years ago). The CEO responded by immediately starting the search for a new CTO. In contrast, the senior vice president of worldwide operations for a Fortune 50 client of ours was given three hours to decide whether to seize his first opportunity – to move with his wife and young children to Indonesia. He said “yes,” and today he no longer receives offers because he is the top guy, having spent 20+ years traveling the world to the most interesting business challenges. Your company wants people to say “yes” to opportunity.
  4. We, not me – You will not get on the list when you are focused more on yourself and your ideas than on your team, the executive team or the business. We coached an executive at a Fortune 500 energy company who is really smart. She knows her stuff and can do everything better than the people she works with. But she couldn’t create buy-in with her team. She would charge up the hill and look back down to see them eating lunch in the meadow below. We helped her to see why she could not rally her team: she hadn’t considered, engaged or invited them. We helped her figure out how to listen more and enlist her people in her vision. Now she has two of her three direct reports on her side, and the third identified as someone to get off the team because that person can’t live up to the vision.

So if you really want to aim for the top, don’t be blackmailable. Seize every opportunity. Focus on your team and the good of the business as a whole. And always be proactive. Figure out what needs to be done, then do it. The ones that get on the list don't sit around and wait to be told what to do. They are the ones who make things happen.


About the Author

Executive team coaches Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky are managing partners at PeopleNRG.com. The global leadership and team consulting firm has transformed the teams of more than 30,000 leaders in 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents since 2008. Visit www.PeopleNRG.com.

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