Landing a spot in the coveted C-suite is the pinnacle of success for many business professionals. But the path to these elite corporate leadership positions like CEO, CRO, and CMO is not always clear.

While each person's journey is unique, there are common experiences and preparations that can set you up for C-suite success.

In this article, we’ll explore the typical routes to the top and how you can thoughtfully chart your own course to become a strong C-suite candidate.

Becoming a strong C-suite candidate

Transitioning from functional leader to elite C-suite executive is a significant step. Preparing for this role progression requires dedication across several areas.

TL;DR: Here are the key steps to prepare for C-suite success:

  • Get educated – Formal learning builds business acumen and leadership capabilities.
  • Gain broad experience – Diverse functional and global roles build well-rounded expertise.
  • Think strategically – Analyze landscapes and craft growth plans like a C-suite leader.
  • Expand your network – Cultivate connections and visibility through speaking, boards, and mentors.
  • Navigate change – The world of an exec is fast-paced and ever-changing. You need to keep up with the times, disrupt, and embrace innovation.

With diverse expertise, strategic sight, and a strong network, product marketers can become well-rounded C-suite candidates ready to take the reins from the top level. 

If you’re keen to learn more about how you can set yourself up for C-suite success, let’s get into it.

Laying the educational groundwork

Having a solid educational background is key to executive leadership. It gives you the skills and knowledge you need to take charge with confidence.

While there are no absolute requirements, many C-suite executives boast advanced degrees like MBAs. This helps them gain the advanced business acumen and cross-functional perspective required for executive-level strategic thinking.

50.7% of the product marketers we spoke to in our 2023/24 Global Product Marketing Salary Survey, have a bachelor’s degree as their highest qualification and earn an average salary of $111,596 per year. 

Programs that offer management-focused courses can be particularly helpful for building expertise in areas like finance, marketing, operations, and more that are essential for C-suite roles.

That said, higher education isn't the only path forward. Many successful executives learned on the job and gained practical experience to expedite their growth into C-suite positions.

Regardless of your background, here are some options to build your capabilities:

  • Attend executive leadership programs or governance training to expand your skills in areas like strategy, decision-making, and boardroom leadership. Some companies even sponsor rising stars for these intensive learning experiences.
  • Seek out certifications or courses in management, marketing, finance, and other critical business functions. This can supplement gaps in formal education.

Gaining diverse and broad experience

C-suite members tend to have worn many professional hats on the way up the ladder. A diverse mix of responsibilities across functions builds the well-rounded expertise key for the climb to the top.

This means getting hands-on experience in activities like:

  • Managing new product launches to hone go-to-market (GTM) strategies
  • Leading high-performing teams to build people management skills
  • Overseeing profit and loss (P&L) for business units to understand financial impacts

“My path into the C-suite was atypical. I didn't have years of marketing leadership experience before I became CMO – I joined a startup, seized every opportunity that came my way, and naturally evolved into the role I'm in now without expecting it.” 
Bryony Pearce, CMO at The Alliance

Gaining global expertise with international postings is also valuable. These roles build perspective and cross-cultural savvy crucial for C-suite leadership.

Here are some tips to build a diverse experience:

  • Spend time in operational roles to understand key business functions. Companies often hire C-suite executives from within.
  • Seek opportunities to work across departments like sales, product, engineering, etc. This develops cross-functional fluency.
  • Take on stretch assignments and projects outside your comfort zone. This builds new capabilities.
  • Pursue global assignments to expand your worldview and leadership abilities.
  • Earn certifications and accreditations to add diverse skills to your portfolio.
  • Attend summits and conferences to build connections and knowledge.

As you take on new challenges, fully immerse yourself. Drive results, make tough calls, and seize opportunities to showcase leadership potential.

Developing strategic thinking

You won't just oversee operations at the C-suite level – you'll shape overall strategy. This requires a sharp analysis of the competitive landscape and growth opportunities.

C-suite leaders don't just observe industry happenings. They translate insights into executable strategic plans.

Here are some tips to build strategic thinking:

  • Shadow C-suite leaders to understand high-level strategic decision-making.
  • Analyze market trends and scenarios to enhance perspective.
  • Spearhead growth projects to get hands-on strategic experience.
  • Develop the capability to distill complex issues into concrete actions.
  • Take part in strategic planning sessions to absorb and contribute insights.
  • Enroll in courses on business strategy and leadership principles.

As you craft strategy, keep the big picture in mind. Weigh impacts, validate with data, and ensure alignment with customer needs and business goals.

Expanding your network

Connections and visibility are vital for rising to the top. Many talented professionals fail to advance because they simply haven’t mastered the art of networking and building connections. But done right, networking creates bonds that support your ascent.

In the early stages of your career, you’ll likely focus on honing functional skills and delivering results. But hard work alone isn't enough. People advance based on relationships and sponsorship from influential leaders.

Here are some tips for expanding your network:

  • Seek out an executive mentor who can provide guidance and open doors for you.
  • Identify and connect with other high achievers. These relationships provide mutual learning.
  • Pursue speaking opportunities at industry conferences. This builds visibility and connections.
  • Join professional organizations and networking groups. These provide exposure to new contacts.
  • Attend company social events and mixers. Connecting personally strengthens professional relationships.
  • Build your personal online brand by sharing insights on professional platforms like LinkedIn.

Prioritize relationship-building throughout your career. With the right mentorship and exposure, you’ll gain the visibility and advocacy needed to reach the top tier.

This is an infographic highlighting the key steps on how to transition to the C-suite. At the top it says "Transition to the influential C-suite through deliberate skills development, expanding your network, leading with emotional intelligence, seizing opportunities in times of change, and continually seeking growth." Then it begins with the steps. Step one is "Embrace the C-suite landscape. Pre-execs seek diverse roles across functions, regions, and activities, building well-rounded expertise." Step two is "Walk the path to the c-suite - Expand your professional network by developing sincere relationships founded on mutual benefit." Step three is "The c-suite mindset - Lead with empathy, emotional intelligence, and an open heart and mind to match your brilliance." Step four is "Challenges and opportunities - View change not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to forge new frontiers, and guide your organization fearlessly into the future." And finally step five is "Making the transition - Activley seek our opportunities like high visibility projects and strategic roles that align with your C-suite aspirations."

Drive innovation

Organizations have to innovate if they want to stay on the cutting edge.  But as digital disruptions reshape industries overnight, innovation is both exhilarating and exhausting for leaders.

Executives must regularly re-evaluate strategy in this climate – tracking trends, aiming for disruption, and pivoting rapidly. They realize that to stay competitive, they have to embrace innovation, not resist it.

So, how do leaders foster innovation? By critiquing existing structures and processes that stifle creativity. Silos, hierarchy, and bureaucracy have no place in an agile, innovative culture.

Executives should empower teams at every level to generate ideas while dedicating resources and leadership to guide the innovation strategy. 

With this balance of support and guidance, organizations unlock game-changing improvements.

Breaking barriers: Transitioning to the C-suite: This comprehensive playbook peels back the curtain on executive leadership, empowering ambitious product marketing professionals like yourself to strategically map out and begin your journey to the top. 🏔️

Managing stakeholders

At a company's core are its stakeholders – employees, investors, board members, customers, and partners. When their needs aren't met, relationships unravel and performance suffers.

Skilled leaders meticulously tend to these connections. They engage compassionately, adapt messaging, and keep communication flowing. 

Stakeholders provide insights that reports can't match. When executives get everyone involved in solving problems, they're tapping into a well of unique wisdom. Plus, co-creating solutions helps get everyone on board.

But make no mistake – balancing these relationships is a high-stakes challenge. Executives who neglect stakeholders breed discontent. Meanwhile, those who nurture connections reap the rewards of engaged employees, delighted customers, and collaborative partners.

Treat stakeholders like partners sharing the journey, not obstacles in the path. Put people first, understand needs, and cultivate trust. When executives focus on shared success, the entire ecosystem thrives.

How to transition to the C-suite

Below we have put together 10 top pieces of advice on how you can slowly develop yourself professionally and personally, so that you naturally transition yourself into that C-suite mindset.

If you take on these tips, you will make yourself that one step closer to becoming a C-suite executive.

The power of connections 

Climbing up the corporate ladder is rarely a solo endeavor. While skills and smarts certainly help, having the support of influential champions can provide the boost needed to propel you into an executive role. Cultivating a diverse professional network is essential for C-suite success.

Networking is about more than just collecting business cards and having coffee chats. It’s about striving to develop sincere relationships founded on mutual benefit, where you aim to provide as much value to your contacts as you gain from them.

Be willing to make thoughtful introductions between your network connections when there’s strategic alignment. This means being generous and sharing advice, resources, and information freely with your contacts to show them you're truly invested. 

In today's hyper-connected world, you can also greatly widen your web through savvy use of social media and thoughtful personal branding.

Establish yourself as an industry thought leader by sharing relevant insights, content, and perspectives across platforms, and connect with like-minded individuals via communities (like PMA’s thriving Slack channel 😉).

The visibility, authority, and influence you build online can accelerate relationship development and expand your reach well beyond physical networking alone.

When the time comes to actively make your move towards a senior executive role, tap into your established network for insider intel on anticipated C-suite openings, decision-maker priorities, and any preferences of the executives doing the hiring.

Discreetly asking well-connected advocates to put in a good word for you or provide recommendations will stand you in good stead. Remember to also pay it forward and graciously return favors when members of your network have needs in the future.

The diverse partnerships and alliances you purposefully cultivate throughout your career can fast-track your ascent up the executive ladder. Approach networking as a lifelong endeavor, not just something to opportunistically climb. The goodwill and reciprocity you thoughtfully build will continue providing benefits long after you've arrived in the C-suite.

Mastering your skills

The path to the executive office requires much more than just a desire for prestige and authority. Those who reach the highest levels have deliberately honed a diverse repertoire of leadership capabilities that set them apart. 

Though every leader has unique strengths, there are key competencies common among those who thrive in the C-suite. These skills vary and can be quite extensive, so we’ve broken it down into 7 fundamental skills:

Rock-solid leadership

Strong strategic leadership skills are non-negotiable for top executives in the C-suite. To pave your way forward, it's essential to expand your leadership and strategic thinking abilities.

C-suite leaders see the big picture and set ambitious visions and strategies for the future. They gather insights from all areas of the organization to inform thoughtful decisions that balance risk and reward.

These high-flying execs anticipate emerging trends, technologies, and market forces that could impact their business down the line – taking a prominent role when it comes to sharing them throughout the entire organization.

By honing strategic leadership abilities, you can gain the judgment and perspective essential to the C-suite. Consider enrolling in advanced management training programs, volunteering for high-level strategic projects that let you flex your skills, and reading case studies of top executives to study how they craft strategy. 

Building strategic leadership muscles takes time, but will prove invaluable in C-suite roles where bold vision and sharp strategy separate good leaders from great.

Polished communication

The C-suite is home to the ultimate communicators: leaders who prompt passion and convey purpose with their every word. They cast visions of company objectives so compelling that the path ahead is clear. Strategies come into sharp focus as they connect each role to overarching goals. With this clarity, employees feel enabled and empowered to contribute to a shared mission.

Executives also lead by example. Through their own actions and interactions, they model desired behaviors and advance the organization.

Timely, constructive feedback helps individuals and teams continuously improve and excel, and with inspirational messaging and guidance, C-suite leaders rally people around a shared purpose.

Disruptive, agile, and forever ready for change

The pace of change today demands agile leadership. Executives must be willing to disrupt the status quo to stay competitive, this shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but natural. How can you expect to grow if you don’t burst out of that constricting business chrysalis? Leaders who hesitate when action is required risk falling behind.

Decisive leaders act with speed and conviction even when data is imperfect. They understand that inaction can have greater consequences than missteps that can be quickly corrected. Having the courage to commit to bold initiatives, and pivot strategies smoothly as conditions evolve, is fundamental.

And then there’s the topic of tech, too. Adaptive leaders continually advance with new technologies and methodologies when they arise. They brainstorm innovations that could reinvent business models and upend industries.

These disruptive ideas have the potential to fail fast, of course, but they also pave the way for enormous opportune impact. Don’t be afraid to actively experiment with game-changing concepts, as this can lead to ingenious market transformations.

Executives invested in the status quo will soon find it disrupted by others, and the last thing you want is to get beaten by your competition.

Relationship building

True executive leaders build bridges and forge unyielding relationships, collaborating across all levels for effective leadership. That’s right, smart execs network expertly, discover talents and harness innovative ideas across their entire ecosystem.

Rather than sticking to your inner circle (although, it’s important not to forget about them!), get out there and network both within and beyond your bubble. Befriend different departments, remote teams, and outside partners. Forge win-win partnerships around shared goals to unlock new potential and spark innovation. Seek out talent in unexpected places – the new intern could have game-changing ideas!

C-suite masters communicate openly and authentically to build trust, spur creativity, and foster transparency with all stakeholders; their networking ability and empathy cultivate a deeper understanding that resonates organization-wide.

Executives who embrace an open, collaborative leadership style send a powerful message. They demonstrate that no one person has all the answers. By valuing diverse voices and bridging silos, they set the tone for transparency, inclusion, and collective growth. Their relationship-focused approach empowers others to think creatively, too, and take risks for the good of the organization.

Collaboration is everything, and it’s not as complicated as you may think. There are tons of opportunities out there, both inside and outside your organization. Whether it’s connecting with people via LinkedIn or joining a top community overflowing with like-minded people, what are you waiting for? Get out there! 

Composed under pressure

Remaining steady in the face of turmoil is a hallmark of effective senior leaders. Inevitably, crises and intense scrutiny arise in the C-suite. Though it’s no easy feat, demonstrating grace under this kind of pressure can really demonstrate the makings of a burgeoning exec.

Leaders set the tone for their teams, staying composed, responding calmly and empathetically, and thinking clearly when chaos strikes. Their levelheaded presence empowers others and provides reassurance that steady hands are on the wheel during rough patches. Executives who can reconcile turbulence with tranquility send a powerful signal of strength.

Of course, resilience under fire is not inborn. It’s honed over time through continuously seeking self-improvement across many facets of leadership. Whilst it’s a lot of effort, pursuing roles that test different capabilities, actively soliciting feedback, and finding mentors via agile networking to impart hard-earned wisdom is essential.

By confronting challenges, learning from missteps, and broadening their perspective, executives-in-training bolster their ability to grow and lead.

Decisive decision-making

At the pinnacle of leadership, decisive decision-making separates good from great. It’s widely known that C-suite execs frequently have to make big calls with incomplete data and high-stakes outcomes hanging in the balance. Executives who thrive have mastered their ability to quickly analyze complex situations, weigh risks judiciously, trust their intuition, and take resolute action when needed.

Those at the top gather input from their team to broaden their perspective and gather essential information, whilst still avoiding paralysis by over-analysis. When the moment comes to make that game-changing call, self-assured executives act swiftly and resolutely.

Of course, decisiveness must be tempered by wisdom. Effective leaders seek diverse views and ask disconfirming questions before reaching a conclusion. It goes without saying that it pays to sharpen your ability to synthesize information and understand intelligent risks.

By acting boldly and standing behind their moves and being willing to make tough calls, decisive leaders in the C-suite inspire confidence in the future and drive the organization forward.

The power of empathy

Today’s most respected executives lead with both head and heart. That means empathy, not bravado, is now the currency.

Companies increasingly prioritize emotional intelligence when elevating candidates to the C-suite. This effectively filters into other key areas that make up a great C-suite leader, like networking and communicating effectively with your team – letting them know that you value their opinions and aren’t too big to absorb perspectives that don’t just stem from your own (albeit wonderful) brain.

Executives high in emotional intelligence emphasize tuning into others. They focus like a laser on how their words and actions make people feel. This people-centered sensibility fosters positivity and purpose across their teams.

C-suite officers who lead with compassion and empathy over ego inspire their workforce, with their warmth and humanity sparking energy, not fear. With an open heart and mind to match their brilliance, executives who foster emotional intelligence uplift their organizations to soaring new heights.

Stay curious

Think of yourself as a thriving seedling seeking out that sought-after water source that’ll lead you to your goal of becoming a prospering oak. You’re likely tired of the metaphors, but essentially, the path to the top requires continuous learning and growth.

Aspiring executives should feed their hunger for development by proactively seeking out opportunities that stretch their skills. Actively searching for openings and engagements that align with your C-suite goals is a surefire way to help you on your journey.

Network with influential peers and mentors in your target roles. Commit to lifelong learning. Stay competitive by attending industry conferences, enrolling in leadership courses, and engaging in webinars and summits that build relevant skills. These steps will help you to adapt your expertise to keep pace with an evolving business landscape.

To truly step up, you need to demonstrate strategic thinking, collaborate across functions, and champion initiatives that further company goals. Providing value, rather than pushing personal agendas, will help you to showcase your agility, which will, in turn, enable you to earn recognition and demonstrate your ability to triumph as an exec.

The road ahead

In the C-suite, success requires evolution. Visionary executives realize that saying “yes” to change is the only path forward.

It takes resilience to stay agile amid turbulence. As markets and technology relentlessly advance, leaders must continually adapt – rethinking structures, processes, and mindsets.

The climb to the top requires patience, diverse experience, and strategic networking. Once there, insightful leaders see challenges as opportunities and steer their companies through change with agility. By embracing innovation and bringing people together, forward-thinking C-suite execs can create lasting success.

How can we help you?

With the premier growth accelerator for product marketing leaders... Exec+ membership.

This one-of-a-kind membership gives you access to an expansive pool of cutting-edge learning resources, powerful peer mentoring, and prime networking events.

Exec+ is specifically designed for senior product marketing leaders at the Director, VP, SCP, and C-suite levels who face distinct leadership challenges and want to continue advancing their skills and knowledge.

What you can expect to see inside the Exec+ dashboard:

 📌 Leadership courses and workshops including the Leadership Accelerator Program.

 📌 Leadership breakfast briefings & dinners.

 📌 Exclusive community, curated peer groups, and one-to-one mentorship.

 📌 Complimentary ticket to an in-person Summit every year plus the one-of-a-kind PMM Leaders Summit.

Everything you need and more to excel.