It's tough at the top… but the perks and remuneration can really be worth it

Oh, to be a success. The joy of it. The freedom it must give, not to mention that tidy sum of money entering your bank account every month. It's what we all dream of, isn't it? To be an inspirational leader at the top of our game? To be a member of the exclusive C-suite…

Or maybe not. Not everyone can be a leader, after all.

But what is the C-suite that's mentioned in business all of the time?

What is the C-suite?

There are lots of different levels within a company, especially when a corporation adopts a functional organisational structure. But the top level is occupied by the C-suite, also known as the C-level executives. 

Why the “C”? It stands for “Chief,” as all of these jobs have Chief in the title, with the best known probably being the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). These positions are responsible for leading a company and its respective departments, meaning they're the most powerful figures within an organisation.

C-suite roles defined

Below are the most common C-suite positions to be found within a corporation.

The CEO (Chief Executive Officer)

More commonly referred to as “the boss” in 70s sitcoms, the CEO of a company is the head honcho, the big cheese, the top dog. They're the highest level executive, answering only to the Board and to shareholders. The CEO is the face of the company, with an overarching view of which direction to steer the business in and how to move it forward, while exerting influence within the community - or even on the world stage.

He or she will look to other C-suite executives within the company for advice and support, but ultimately the buck stops with the CEO. They can come from any background, having either worked their way up within a company or been headhunted from elsewhere.

CEO traits and skills

  • Sees the bigger picture

  • Leadership

  • Decision-making capabilities

  • Visionary

  • Polished communicator

Famous examples

  • Apple - Tim Cook, since 2011

  • Citigroup - Jane Fraser, since 2021

  • Fenty Beauty - Rihanna, since 2017

  • Marks & Spencer - Steve Rowe, since 2016

  • Meta - Mark Zuckerberg, since 2004

The COO (Chief Operating Officer)

While the CEO has the task of overseeing all aspects of the business, the COO is there to make sure the day-to-day functions and operations of a business run as smoothly as possible. That includes staff training, recruitment, legal, payroll, and administrative services. Often seen as the second in command, COOs usually report to the CEO. They need to be efficient, great at solving problems, and expert at executing short-term business plans.

If something goes wrong, the COO is the one responsible for making sure things are fixed correctly and to a high standard. With the CEO articulating the company vision to employees and customers, it's the job of the COO to implement that vision.

COO traits and skills

  • Efficient

  • Resolves issues

  • Detail oriented

  • Focus on business growth

  • Collaborative

Famous examples

  • Boots - Tracy Clements, since 2018

  • Google Consumer Hardware - Ana Corrales, since 2019

  • Microsoft - Tracy Galloway, since 2021

  • Plastipak - Matthew Franz, since 2020

The CFO (Chief Financial Officer)

If you're an Accountant or Financial Director, getting the CFO spot will be the icing on the cake for your career. It's the very top of the corporate ladder for those with a head for numbers, as the CFO is in charge of the finances of a company - an extremely important role that can determine if a business sinks or swims. CFOs have to carefully study each business venture proposed by the CEO to weigh up whether it's financially viable or not.

CFO traits and skills

  • A head for figures

  • Financial analysis

  • Portfolio management

  • Factual reasoning

  • Commercial acumen

Famous examples

  • Capgemini, France - Carole Ferrand, since 2018

  • Disney - Kevin Lansberry, since 2023

  • GlaxoSmithKline - Julie Brown, since 2023

  • Tesco - Imran Nawaz, since 2021

  • Unilever plc - Graeme Pitkethly, since 2016

The CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)

The marketing of a company is all important. If no-one knows what you stand for or what you do, you aren't going to secure any business or attract any customers. This is where the CMO comes in. They need to excel at all marketing activities, from social media innovation and product management initiatives to communications and market research.

While the internet and cutting-edge technology has changed our world beyond recognition over the past 20 years, the originals of marketing remain the same. It's all about the seven Ps - promotion, people, place, price, product, process, and physical evidence. So a great CMO needs to cover all aspects of an organisation's marketing strategy, both at a digital and physical level.

CMO traits and skills

  • Brand awareness

  • Creativity

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Design focus

Famous examples

  • JP Morgan Chase - Carla Hassan, since 2021

  • Microsoft - Chris Caposella, since 2014

  • Pandora - Carla Liuni, since 2020

  • X (formerly Twitter) - Leslie Berland, since 2017

The CIO (Chief Information Officer)

Back in the day, the CIO - if there was even one in an organisation - was rather looked down upon and took a back seat. What did they do anyway? Now, with technology potentially making a meaningful impact within a business, the CIO is front and centre when it comes to making decisions and exerting influence.

The CIO is accountable for the management of all IT and computer systems. That's not to say they'll be the one popping over to your desk when you're having trouble with creating a spreadsheet, more that they take an overall view, encompassing policy creation, IT strategy, and systems maintenance.

CIO traits and skills

  • Demystifying technologies to the lay person

  • Fostering innovation

  • Promoting teamwork

  • Business drive

  • Willingness to learn and explore new tech

Famous examples

  • Adobe - Cindy Stoddard, since 2016

  • Google - Ben Fried, since 2008

  • Lenovo - Arthur Hu, since 2022

  • Meta - Atish Banerjea, since 2016

The CTO (Chief Technology Officer)

Not to be confused with the CIO, the Chief Technology Officer, or Chief Technical Officer, is in charge of all technological needs of a firm, including research and development. This covers the physical technological infrastructure, including network and system management and integration testing. It also encompasses the development of technical personnel.

The CTO oversees all short and long term goals, dipping into capital to make sound investments that will ultimately move the business forward and ensure it keeps up with the times.

CTO traits and skills

  • Technological insight

  • Decisiveness

  • Understanding of trends in technology

  • Strategic mindset

Famous examples

  • Dell Technologies - Glen Robson, since 2018

  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise - Fidelma Russo, since 2021

  • Microsoft - Kevin Scott, since 2017

  • SAP SE - Juergen Mueller, since 2019

Other C-suite roles 

While most businesses will have the above roles within the C-suite, larger businesses may also include additional roles such as:

  • Chief Compliance Officer (CCO)

  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

  • Chief Data Officer (CDO)

  • Chief Human Resources Manager (CHRM)

  • Chief Security Officer (CSO)

  • Chief Green Officer (CGO)

  • Chief Analytics Officer (CAO)

What are the main responsibilities at this level?

As the most influential and important group in a company, C-suite executives have a lot of weight to bear on their shoulders. They have to ensure that the company's strategies and the operations of the business dovetail with the vision, plans, and policies. There's going to be stress. It's inevitable. But the salary package can be very rewarding.

How to make it to C-suite level

You'll need extensive experience in your field or sector, along with finely tuned leadership skills. 

Navigating the lower rungs of the career ladder requires technical skills and functional knowhow. But to reach the very top rung, you'll need to cultivate a more visionary perspective for those executive decisions that have to be made.

There isn't a standard way of becoming an elite member of the C-suite. It could come about by being proactive and thoroughly determined, with a clear plan set out from the age of 25. For some though, getting to the top spot is a matter of pushing on through and getting to know the right people through clever networking.

However you plan on getting there, there'll be no room for slacking or complacency. Tireless diligence and a proven track record are paramount, along with a flexible mindset, adaptability within an ever-shifting business landscape, and exceptional communication abilities.

Tips to make it to the top

Maximise your chances of reaching the highest echelons of a business by following the tips below:

Cultivate robust leadership capabilities

Growing and strengthening leadership skills will make all the difference. Grasp any opportunity where you can manage people and projects. By mentoring and leading others, you can develop your leadership qualities and improve them over time by requesting constructive feedback on which areas to improve.

Hone in on your strengths

If you excel in the product development sphere, for example, read around the subject and gen up on all related subject matter. If you possess expert power in one field, you'll be able to excel and work your way up through the ranks to achieve C-suite level.

Focus the spotlight on your efforts

Take the initiative by suggesting valid ideas, consistently submitting a high standard of work, and putting your hand up for new opportunities, while, at the same time, making sure that higher management sees all of this going on.

Reckon you're now ready for a C-suite role? It's time to brush up on your CV in order to advance your career, and ensure it presents you at an executive level. However, if you're not quite sure which level you sit at at the moment, turn to TopCV's free review for advice and guidance.

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