Accessibility Links

The oblique pathway to the C-Suite

22/08/17 Greg McHugh Partner

The pathway to the top of an organisation is not an established, linear journey – it is often diverse and unplanned.

C-suite roles are the highest ranking roles in an organisation and those holding these roles are the ‘chiefs’ of their functions. The most senior member of the C-suite is the CEO, who has the highest profile as well as the broadest remit.The scrutiny CEO’s work under is shared, to a lesser extent by their fellow C-suite executives—leaders who may be in training for the top job or, whose roles have a major impact on the organisation’s performance.

There are several pathways to the top and those who succeed in the C-suite do so by first working to strengthen team performance. They are not afraid of risk, take responsibility for their decisions, communicate well and can create work environments rich with understanding, opportunity and enthusiasm.

What is less well known however, is the journey C-suite executives have taken to reach the top roles. The pathway to the top is often not a linear journey. In fact it is as diverse as those who travel on it and it can start long before his or her first managerial position.

Redline Executive’s Partner Greg McHugh discusses with two executive business leaders who hold, or have held, Chief Executive Officer positions and a variety of C-suite roles, to learn about the experiences which contributed to or defined their journey to the top.

Chris Jagusz is an experienced CEO specialising in technology enabled business to business services. He has experience in turning around failing companies, growing businesses organically and through acquisition and has led strategic reviews resulting in restructuring, new investment and divestment. Greg McHugh participated in a discussion about Chris’s journey to the C-Suite.

Your pathway to the C-suite – how was it gained?

“I’d always seen myself as a generalist, even though the first ten years of my career were in sales, and I deliberately set about gathering as broad a range of experience as I could. I talked about my ambitions with my managers and their seniors, and that helped me gain exposure and the opportunity to lead projects, which were great career experiences. When the time came to make sideways moves into new roles, I could demonstrate the ability to learn new functional disciplines and environments.

Over the years, I built up a good range of skills across sales, marketing, products, operations, finance and M&A, so when an opportunity arose for a CEO position with a business newly acquired by a private equity investor, I could give them confidence about my appointment.”

Was your journey defined by working for well-established businesses or was it a new business? If it was a new business, did you require an innovative leadership style rather than following traditional leadership models? 

“The first half of my career was with BT, who were a great employer – I was very lucky to take part in some first-class development programmes and to be able to work in different countries with them in interesting jobs. However, I could see that being a CEO in a mid-sized private equity-backed firm was going to be much more interesting and rewarding than continuing to climb the ladder in a corporate, so I’d already decided that I’d be leaving BT around 12 months before the right role came up externally.  

The biggest difference in moving from a corporate to a smaller business which had been owner-managed until very recently, was the immediacy and directness of approach which was needed. There was no time for any corporate fluff!”

Were there journeys influenced by unexpected forks in the road?

“In hindsight I can see a logical progression in acquiring skills and experience. At the time it felt quite random – for example, because I moved to Frankfurt to run an operations team and became a fluent German speaker, I was offered a role in Switzerland managing an investment in a joint venture. That turned into an M&A project, and then setting up a start-up business, which I could never have guessed would happen when I first left the UK. Much of the time, the roles I took were loosely-defined and offered a lot of scope to do new things – all those experiences became very valuable in the context of becoming CEO for the first time.”

Were there any sliding door moments, where decisions to walk towards or away from an opportunity had profound consequences on your career?

“It’s an interesting mental exercise to consider what would have happened if a particular meeting had gone differently or I’d taken a decision one way rather than another. The sequence of events that leads you to a particular place could easily have turned out very differently. That said, I had a clear direction of travel: the steps in the journey might have been a little different, but I suspect the destination would have been much the same eventually.” 

Bill Duffy, a highly successful CEO, Chairman and Non-Executive Director also provided Redline Executive with his thoughts on the route of executives to the C-suite.

"I think Greg makes some very good observations in this piece and I know many people either have or claim to have a master career plan but I personally know very few of those. Most of the top leaders I have met have been very honest about having experienced a number of twists and turns before getting their break at a top CEO role.  Often they say that roles they had pursued were not really the job they were seeking. However they found their niche where they could use the skills they had acquired coming through the ranks to now lead people the way they would like to have been led themselves".

Bill continues: “In my own case, I have a strong sales and marketing background and although I became a General Manager of a start-up business in my mid-twenties and an MD when I was in my thirties, I did default back to being a Sales & Marketing Director in national sales companies on two occasions before returning to general management and getting my first CEO role. I think those periods honing my business growth skills in B2B and B2C have been invaluable. Understanding and listening to customer needs is key to being a good sales person and in my mind is also key to being a CEO and knowing how to lead your people and your company to deliver great service and produce great results.”

Click here to find out more about our Advisory Board Members. For a confidential discussion on joining our Advisory Board or with reference to your next CEO job, please call Andy Raymond – Head of Executive Search on +44 (0)1582 878907 or send an email to ARaymond@RedlineExecutive.com