How Successful C-Level Leaders Become Company Leaders

You’ve arrived—you’re now a successful C-level leader. You’ve gotten feedback that you’re doing a great job leading your function. Things are going well. What’s next? 

Your next step is to move into “company level leadership,” where you retain the same title, but your influence expands well beyond your function. It’s a little-known fact that there are many levels within a single C-suite job. The most outstanding C-level leaders have a scope of influence that begins to look more and more like that of the CEO. It’s exactly these best-in-class C-level leaders who later become CEOs themselves. Here are four pathways towards company level leadership.

Hire better and delegate even more. Yes, you delegate a lot: maybe you have thousands of people in your organization. But are you still micro-involved? Do you still “save” your direct reports or personally fix problems, because you don’t trust your team? Instead, hire people as senior as you are, and give them larger, more strategic parts of your job.

Granted, this takes a leap of faith—hiring people who are potentially your equal, or who may even be senior enough to be your boss. But this leap is essential if you are truly to uplevel yourself and your organization. How else can you extract yourself from less strategic work, and free up time to have greater impact?

One common fear that comes up when leaders contemplate such a move is, “I know how to do my current job. If I delegate a lot of that, what’s left for me to do?”

The answer: “Plenty.” Use your liberated time to think more strategically about your business, about opportunities, and about the design your organization will need three to five years hence. Use it to deepen relationships with key customers, to coach your direct reports and emerging talent, to strengthen relationships and collaboration with your peers and board members (if your CEO supports that), and to cultivate your external pipeline for future hires. Use it to make any big, important decisions you’ve been avoiding. You’ll be surprised how much more value you can add at the top of your organization when you aren’t constantly putting out fires further down.

Become a masterful coach. Now you have terrific leaders under you. Your job is to help them become even better. Invest in them. Make your coaching so valuable that it becomes a compelling reason for your direct reports to stay at your company. 

A new study by Microsoft surveying 20,000 people found that employees now view opportunities to learn and grow as the top driver of a great company culture, up from ninth place in 2019. If you’re a senior executive, this trend suggests that there is high value in the time you spend coaching, developing, and stretching your direct reports. Your expert coaching is an extraordinary development opportunity; it may be the most compelling retention strategy available.

Other research shows that companies perform better when managers are expected to coach their direct reports. By being an expert coach yourself, you model behavior that will propagate to the layers below you, helping your whole enterprise prosper.

To improve your coaching, master the art of provocative questions, active listening and actionable feedback. Use open questions, which usually begin with “What…?” “How…?” or “Tell me more about…?” They create space for the other person to do their best thinking. Start with questions that shed light on the context, mindset and behaviors of the person you’re coaching— questions like “What’s going on?” or “How did that come about?” and “What’s important here?” Don’t dive into solving their problem too early; you’ll short-circuit their growth. Instead, work to help them fully understand the problem from different angles.

Then pivot to questions that lead to a change in mindset or behavior, like: “Now that we’ve taken a good look at this situation, how are you thinking about it?” or “What options do you see in front of you?” Or, “If you had no constraints, what would you do?” 

Beyond your questions, bring your perspective. The best coaches don’t just ask questions, they also share insights. Offering your perceptions, feedback and carefully chosen anecdotes can provide huge value.

Think at the company level. Want to be a CEO? Start thinking like one now. Study the competitive landscape, learn about other company functions, and see your peers’ success as equally important to your own. Without ignoring your own career interests, constantly ask yourself “What’s best for the company?” Research shows transitions from functional to enterprise leadership require this sort of new perspective.

Become a business leader, not just a functional leader. Read Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, and other general management publications. Build your network, inside and outside your company, with leaders from varied disciplines. Be curious about their worlds, ask questions, and listen more than you talk. Absorb their experience vicariously.

To take this even further, become a highly interested student of the world. Lift your head up from your day-to-day and nourish your mind with a steady drip of global perspectives on current events, geopolitics, news, technology, and a wide range of topics. It’s said that Larry Page, co-founder of Alphabet, has a voracious intellectual appetite, learning about a vast array of subjects. What would you read if you were the company CEO, or Board Chair? Or if you were a Fortune 500 CEO?

Offer a strategic business voice in the C-suite and boardroom. Build on your company-level thinking to bring more value to your CEO, peers, board and investors. By degrees, start offering your independent viewpoint on the most important issues that face the business—whether or not they fall squarely in your domain. This is not only a matter of speaking out more, but of providing more strategic business value in your comments.

Of course, be sensitive when you do this. Jumping in with a critical “perspective” on your peer’s organization may be better done gently, positively, and privately, especially if your company culture rewards collaboration. I once coached a C-level executive whose CEO claimed to want to hear her voice more. She dutifully amped up her comments and became one of the most outspoken and courageous voices in the team—only to be punished by her CEO for disagreeing with him. As you begin turning up the volume on your voice, keep your antennae out, and check in periodically with your CEO to ensure you’re not missing the mark.

These four pathways build on each other. Without stronger direct reports and more delegation, you’ll never find time to coach, to expand your thinking, and to offer a business voice at the table. And none is without risk—courage is a crucial ingredient. Moving towards enterprise-level leadership isn’t just a series of new tasks; it takes personal growth, which demands bravery.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about doing things 1% better each day, and how micro-improvements accumulate into big wins over time. This incremental approach makes sense for C-level leaders. It helps mitigate the risk of big, sudden moves and lets you digest learnings along the way. Begin now, in a few years you might find yourself in the CEO’s chair.