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How to reach the top of the corporate ladder

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Having a resumé longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls is no longer the single most important qualification for winning a desk in the corner office.

As corporate hierarchies flatten and C-suites become more crowded with an alphabet soup of specialists—technology, innovation, experience, talent, and more—the ability to work cooperatively with peers has become one of the most important qualities for the CEO of today, according to Cassandra Frangos, a Northeastern alumna and one of the nation’s leading executive coaches.

Cassandra Frangos, DMSB’98

“The C-suite is getting younger,” said Frangos, whose new book, Crack the C-Suite Code, calls upon her nearly two decades as an executive coach for world-class corporations. “We’re seeing more CEOs in their 40s. When Cisco promoted Chuck Robbins to succeed John Chambers to head a $50 billion company, he was 49 years old. Andrew Wilson at Electronic Arts was 39.”

Corporations, she said, are looking for CEOs who can be “team members as well as team leaders.”

“As companies take more risks with younger executives, it’s increasingly important for them to work effectively with a team that rounds out their skills,” said Frangos, DMSB’98. “If you’re a visionary, you need someone who is execution-oriented to always be playing devil’s advocate. There is more interdependence in the C-suite.”

Her book provides guidance to those whose ultimate goal is to reach the corner office.

The four paths

Crack the C-Suite Code is based on Frangos’ research with 350 C-suite candidates, coupled with two decades coaching top executives at world-class companies including Cisco and Spencer Stuart. She identified four broad paths to CEO.

* Tenure-track executives rise patiently and persistently through the corporate hierarchy, absorbing the culture, developing expertise, and gathering followers.

* Free agents are recruited from outside the company often because the company is looking for a fresh perspective and new ideas.

* Leapfrog executives jump several steps to land the CEO position, passing over their bosses based on vision, leadership, and potential to lead the company in a rapidly changing world.

* Founders are courageous souls who give up their lucrative corporate jobs to lead new companies of their own inventions.

The percentage of CEOs recruited from outside the company has more than doubled since 1970.

Cassandra Frangos DMSB'98 CEO succession expert, Spencer Stuart

Frangos noted two broad trends among these categories. First, the percentage of CEOs recruited from outside the company has more than doubled since 1970, from 15 percent to 33 percent. Second, there has been a notable rise in leapfrog executives as companies put a greater emphasis on innovation, vision, and the ability to adapt to a changing environment.

But possibly the book’s greatest value is the insight Frangos provides regarding the character traits that are most likely to accelerate or derail a person’s career in each of the four paths.

Can you see your blind spots?

Frangos said the most common blind spot among today’s aspiring CEOs is hubris. The most common accelerators are emotional intelligence and followership—the art of inspiring others to support your strong leadership. But the most surprising trait Frangnos emphasizes is vulnerability.

“In modern leadership, you have to be willing to show your vulnerability at times,” she said. “You can’t claim to know all the answers and insist you’re the smartest person in the room.”

She described three C-suite stars to illustrate these qualities.

“In modern leadership, you have to be willing to show your vulnerability at times.”

Cassandra Frangos, DMSB'98 CEO succession expert, Spencer Stuart

The first was an executive who had already reached one of the top positions, but was detested by co-workers. As he told it, everything he touched was a success. In meetings, he had all the answers.

“Whether he was giving a presentation or being asked for advice, it was all about him,” said Frangos, who was assigned to coach the man after the CEO gave him three months to make some changes. He didn’t learn a thing, and instead of rising to the top job, he was fired.

“His body language during our meetings said it all—arms crossed, teeth clenched,” said Frangos. “Ego is a huge derailer. It can definitely be a career killer.”

The second example was a highly talented engineer with a top academic pedigree. This man had huge potential, but was also arrogant and disliked.

“His communication style just didn’t work because he disenfranchised everyone,” said Frangos. “He thought he was the smartest person in the room all the time, and his co-workers couldn’t stand him.”

But unlike the man who got canned, the engineer developed a willingness to grow. Still, in is initial meeting with Frangos, he was resistant, much like the first man.

“He demanded to know my qualifications and where I went to school,” she said.

After a few sessions, he began to soften. He leaned forward when Frangos was making a key point and called her frequently to discuss interactions with co-workers.

“He was a sponge,” she said. “He was always asking me for feedback and for things he could read.”

The result: the engineer is on the fast track and his co-workers no longer find him obnoxious.

“Your bosses may love you, but if everyone below hates you, you’re not the right kind of leader for today’s world.”

Cassandra Frangos, DMSB'98 CEO succession expert, Spencer Stuart

“Your bosses may love you, but if everyone below hates you, you’re not the right kind of leader for today’s world,” said Frangos. “You need followership. If you don’t have a way to inspire and embrace people at all levels of the organization, you won’t cut it in the C-suite.”

The third executive was a little different. Her team loved her—the best boss they’d ever had. But her peers found her impossible to work with. She was so focused on the accomplishments of her own team that she couldn’t see the value in the work of other key teams. She got results, she had excellent followership, but she couldn’t collaborate.

As with the engineer, this woman was eager to work on her blind spots and has continued to thrive.

Her own story

Frangos arrived at Northeastern planning to become a psychologist, but she graduated in 1998 with a dual degree in business and psychology. She said it was a strange combination at the time.

“I was always running across campus between classes because the two departments were at opposite ends of the campus,” she recalled. “At the time, these two fields were polar opposites, but I knew there was a strong connection.”

After graduation, she worked as an executive recruiter at several large companies while earning advanced degrees from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. With her doctorate in business, she landed a job in 2010 as the top executive coach and recruiter at the tech giant Cisco. In January, she moved to the international executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart.

Her profession utilizes both aspects of her Northeastern degree, since an executive coach is part therapist, part sounding board, and part trusted advisor.

“As a talent leader, the essence of what I do is understanding the psychology of leaders and the system around them, so that I can help them reach their potential and beyond,” she said.

Her top takeaway? 

“Teamwork is key. Loners rarely reach the C-suite.”

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