Many professionals aspire to be the future CEO of their company. Achieving such a lofty position takes the culmination of years of hard work and gives you a chance to make a dramatic impact in your industry, potentially around the world. The funnel narrows sharply, however, as you approach the C-suite, with far more contenders than open slots. Are you really talented enough to take the reins? Here are five questions that you should make a habit of asking yourself each year so you can measure your progress as you rise to the top.
What skill should I focus on this year? It’s natural for ambitious professionals to want to take on 10 priorities at once and be done yesterday, but that’s not practical. Instead, make steady progress by choosing one major skill to master this year so that your efforts will really propel you forward. It could be learning a foreign language so you can position yourself for a choice overseas position. Perhaps you’ve realized that you need to get better at delegation, so hire a coach and set aside time on your calendar for the kind of planning that’s necessary to succeed. Pick your highest impact area, and invest accordingly.
How have I improved? Just as it’s essential to keep moving forward with your skills acquisitions, you also want to chart how far you’ve come. Each year, take stock of what you’ve learned and make a list of specific examples (how exactly have you made use of this attribute?). This will be helpful in making your case for future promotions, but it’s also a good reality check: Are you actually following through on your commitment to better yourself? If something has gotten in your way, what is it, and how can you avoid that roadblock moving forward?
How frequently do I communicate my vision? This question comes from Harvard Business School Professor Robert S. Kaplan’s seminal leadership book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. He discovered that one of the most common leadership failures is not communicating your vision and strategy to subordinates, which can lead to mistrust (“Does she know what she’s doing?”) and disagreement (“Why is he forcing me to do this?”). Leaders often get so wrapped up in day-to-day management that they forget that they also need to explain their big-picture thinking and get others excited about it. Making this a priority will help set you apart.
Where am I getting honest feedback? As we ascend the professional ladder, it gets harder and harder to receive unvarnished feedback. There’s far more at risk when someone criticizes a superior rather than a junior employee. Ironically, that means that you’re often getting much better guidance early in your career, instead of later on when you’re making critical decisions that affect many more people. As you gain more responsibility, you need to proactively seek out truth-tellers and make them a part of your circle. As I discuss in my book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, it’s helpful to create a “mentor board of directors” that you can turn to for advice and an honest perspective. To grow, you need to hear the truth.
Do I really want to be a CEO? Leadership comes with sacrifices. Becoming a CEO requires an enormous amount of time on the road, long hours at work, and trade-offs that many other people aren’t willing to make. For those who seek to make an impact, it’s all worthwhile, but it’s also important to ask yourself as you rise within your organization: “Is this what I really want?” Some professionals don’t want to go all in but still force themselves because they’ve been aiming at the same target for years and don’t want to give up. Don’t make that mistake. Pursue the C-suite with gusto if that’s your dream, but recognize that there are many other fulfilling roles in your organization if you aren’t ready to make the necessary life choices that becoming a CEO entails.
Plenty of people aspire to leadership. By asking these questions regularly and continually honing your skills, you’ll have the inside edge.