How to get promoted to the C-Suite

As a senior executive looking to move into the C-Suite, do you have an in-depth knowledge of the factors that might go into the making of that promotion decision?  Alternatively, as a leader in your organization, are you building the strongest possible team by leveraging all the talent you have available to you? In all organizations, it’s essential that an objective framework for promotion review and decision-making is in place. C-Suite candidates must be crystal clear on the expectations and criteria of the Board and other arbiters who may influence the final outcome. Perceptions and messaging will differ, depending on where individuals fall in their hierarchy.  For Episode # 33 of my podcast series, The World Class Leaders Show, it was my great pleasure to host Amii Barnard-Bahn. Amii is a former Fortune Global 50 executive and a consultant to the C suite and leaders at global companies such as Bank of the West and Adobe. Recognised by Forbes as one of the top coaches for legal and compliance executives, Amii is a member of Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches and a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Coaching.  Amii guest lectures at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and is a contributor to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and more. Amii received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Centre and her BA from Tufts. As a lifelong diversity advocate, Amy testified for the successful passage of the first laws in the USA requiring corporate boards to include women. Together, we discussed how important promotion events are for the health of an organization, and we agreed that, often, the human nature of C-suite executives may lead to overlooked potential and opportunities to strengthen a team. We tend to promote people that we are comfortable with. However, that approach can lead to “PLU” (People Like Us) Syndrome; if everyone around you is similar, this typically does not lead to the most exciting innovations and breakthroughs.  Like a good chef, a leader must continually review his team, identify any missing ingredients like skills, experience or attributes, and recruit and promote accordingly.

Five Critical Criteria for Judging Promotability

Amii’s work has revealed that using an objective framework for judging promotability leads to better decision-making regarding promotion candidates for C-suite and senior roles. At middle-management levels, use of such a framework can deliver improvements and clarity in feedback to employees who feel they are ready for promotion. There are five key criteria:
  • Self-Awareness
    • How well does a candidate take ownership of their own development?
    • Are they skilled at identifying, analyzing and adapting to context?
  • External Awareness
    • How does their behaviour impact other people?
    • To what degree do they remain aware of and centered on client requirements?
  • Strategic Thinking
    • What capacity and capability exists to see the big picture and think long-term?
    • Do they regularly make a habit of looking at the ‘important’ versus the ‘urgent’?
  • Executive Presence
    • Do they have the level of gravitas required by the role? Are they calm under pressure and willing to speak truth to authority?
    • Are they perceived by senior leaders as influential and strategic by nature? Are they skilled at presenting their concepts and information persuasively?
    • How well are they listened to by others, how do they handle difficult questions?
  • Thought Leadership
    • Do they have special knowledge or expertise both inside and outside the company?
    • Do they take the initiative to learn more about their industry and area?
    • Are they eager to volunteer for and participate in cross-functional projects?
    • Do they build and contribute to the body of knowledge in their field, through writing, speaking, or volunteering?

Diversity and Equity Challenges

Employees need to understand that they must take responsibility and ownership for their own development and preparation for promotability.  However, for Women and Persons of Color, studies show that they generally receive less direct feedback on their performance and are often seen as not being able to be as internally influential. Access to powerful networks is critical, with board positions frequently being discussed privately, and not advertised. Women represent 55% of MBA graduates, yet only 20% of board positions are filled by women. Proximity bias, already a concern, has only increased as a result of the pandemic and the new hybrid work solutions. Women disproportionately tend to have home and family responsibilities. As a result, they tend to miss some of the ‘watercooler meetings’, or ‘drinks after work’ gatherings, and are not as readily visible to senior leaders as other co-workers. Leaders can combat this issue by taking frequent and regular action to check in with all of their team members, and to be aware and understanding of their individual priorities, circumstances and life situations. Efforts should be taken to gather the entire team together often.

Building Promotability

Many younger employees may be impatient for advancement, yet not fully aware of how best to prepare and develop their readiness to move forward. Senior managers and leaders have the responsibility and obligation to provide constructive feedback and clarity on expectations. There are many avenues available for building skills and upgrading perceptions, including:
  • Carving time to review strategic questions about customer needs, recent mistakes and their lessons, listening to thought leaders to generate new ideas.
  • Signing on for new company initiatives and committees, or volunteering/serving outside of the organization.
  • Launching or supporting pilot projects such as innovation labs or new product development.
  • Conception, analysis and presentation of an improvement idea or market opportunity.
  • Content development and publishing of intellectual property such as manuals, guidebooks, articles, podcasts and more. Closing my fascinating discussion with Amii, I asked her to answer my ‘final four’ questions.
Q: What is one thing you’ve learned across your whole career? A: The biggest thing I learned is to get really good at giving and receiving feedback. I wish I had learned earlier not to be afraid to ask for feedback. Q: Is there one thing that you might have done differently in your career? A: As I said earlier, I would have asked for more feedback. I made so many pivots in my career, and I think that would have helped me learn that the reason is simply that I enjoy leading change and I’m attracted to change. If I had known that earlier, I would have realized that my love of leading change is the crux of that; that’s part of who I am. Careers are not linear, there are ups and downs, and that’s completely normal. Q: At a time in your career where you had exceptional performance, what was in place that allowed that to happen? A: I was able to build my team from the ground up and really determine the skill sets, the mind sets, and the attributes of each player. I had outstanding support from the business leaders, and our business ethics and compliance department was able to function as a true business partner. We understood the business very well, and we were able to find optimized solutions. Q: Is there a book that really influenced you or impacted your life and career? A: The one that impacted me most recently was Herminia Ibarra’s “Working Identity”. With all of the pivots I’ve made in my career, I appreciate the way she argues against conventional wisdom. If you’d like to reach Amii, and find out more about her free promotability index, you can visit the website at There are many resources available, such as leadership resources, guidebooks, and newsletters. You can also find Amii on Linked in, at Listen to the podcast related to this article:  
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