Has The Path To The C-Suite Changed?

When you think of those in CEO and other C-level positions, you probably imagine the household names that started million and billion-dollar companies. You probably also think that unless you started your own enterprise, you could ever reach the level of CEO, COO or similar. The fact is, this isn’t true. There are a number of career routes that can lead you to the top leadership positions, which of course aren’t limited to only the CEO.


The C-suite and roles that sit within it are evolving as the modern workplace changes in line with technology and the ever-changing requirements of a 21st-century workforce. The current likely roles to be found in C-suites include: 

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Chief Innovation Officer 
  • Chief Human Resources Officer 
  • Chief Marketing Officer
  • Chief Technology Officer 
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Chief Sales Officer 
  • Chief Data Officer 
  • And many more.

We’ll take a look at the many routes to roles in the C-suite, and the many ways you can reach the highest rungs of the career ladder. 


The Tenured Executive: This path is traditionally the most usual route to C-suite roles. Those who tread this path have been with the organization for a long time, often over a decade. During their career, they will have gained institutional knowledge, experience, and been promoted up through the company into more responsible and demanding roles – until the only place left to go is into the C-suite. The key to this path is patience. These days it is more common for people to move around to achieve their career aspirations, especially if their employer’s timeline isn’t fitting in with their own career goals. 

The Free Agent: In this case, outside appointees are recruited directly into the C-suite. A free agent is almost always sought after by organizations to lead change due to pressure from investors. In most cases, the organization that procures the services of a free agent does so because the existing executives do not have the skills or experience needed to support the organization. To be successful as a free agent, one needs to be worth the risk of being selected as an outsider, have the necessary skills required of someone at such a high level of seniority, and have a track record of success.

The Leapfrog Leader: This is where a member of an organization is promoted to a top role from two or more levels below in the organization. Expected successors are bypassed, and leaders of such organizations are taking a risk on potential and generally rewarding leaders who have proven themselves resourceful, wired for change and reinvention. This is a rarer method but does happen occasionally. There is the danger of upsetting other high-ranking leaders within the organisation by appointing high-ranking executives in this way. 


The Consulting Path: About 5% of CEOs over the last 10 years used to be management consultants. Even though this represents an unconventional career trajectory, one 10-year study shows that companies run by a consultant-turned-CEO perform 20% to 30% better compared to their counterparts.

Interim to Permanent: This is another less traditional path to the C-suite, although it is one that we’ve seen becoming more frequent over time. Of 1200 interim placements made since 2002, we have seen an astonishing 50% of interim placements become permanent. This figure is likely helped by the flexibility we offer. With us, any initial interim management agreement can be turned into a permanent position at any time of the interim management contract.

Executive Investors to Permanent: This path is also less common that other routes. As an Executive Investor you will have devoted money, time and expertise to your portfolio. When the opportunity arises to move into a C-suite position within one of your investments, you are able to hit the ground running thanks to your in-depth knowledge and experience in a way that other external candidates couldn’t. 

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the non-traditional paths are becoming less non-traditional. Either way, there are certainly plenty of options for individuals to rise into the highest rank of an organisation, and to do so in a way that ensures they are well-equipped for the demands of such an important and integral leadership role. 

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