knowing where to start your career journey to the top is half the battle.

If you aspire to join top management in your company or a different one, and you are willing and ready to put in the effort to do so, there’s no reason why you can’t work your way up the corporate ladder to the top rung. Here's how to start your career journey to the top. 

As a seasoned professional in today’s dynamic world of work, you’ve demonstrated all the skills inherent in a great leader: people management, market foresight, political savviness and consistent communications. As you now navigate into the executive ranks, it’s time to reassess your goals — both professionally and personally. While this may seem unnecessary since you’ve journeyed thus far in a successful career, moving into the C-suite requires a careful re-examination of what you aspire to be as a leader. This means being brutally honest about the roles you desire and the timeframe in which you want this to happen.    

Aspiring to be a C-suite leader is not the goal of every professional. Those holding the title understand it requires immense personal sacrifice, dedication, the ability to absorb useful criticism while deflecting others and being accountable to the executive board and shareholders. Such intensifying pressures have led the median tenure of CEOs to fall to just five years, according to one study. As digitalization and automation transform most industries, leaders are expected to have a vision for taking their business into the next decade and beyond.  

But maybe joining the C-suite is not your goal; you may seek out a leadership position working more closely with a functional team in sales, operations or product development, for instance. This still requires clearly defining your goals, whether those are related to financial compensation, job satisfaction, specific professional achievements, personal desire or others. Whatever it is you hope to achieve, regularly reassessing your goals will ensure a clear path to them.   

A common approach is to adopt the SMART model of goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). This can help you better reach your aim within the timeframe you desire, according to CEO magazine. While the SMART methodology is often set up to reach business results, you can apply the same principles for steering your career. Once you have applied this to align your goals, it’s time to consider some critical questions.

One of these is determining what kind of organization is right for you, according to Katherine Graham Leviss, the founder of XBInsight, a U.S.-based talent assessment and executive coaching company. While most professionals envision a career path filled with increasingly important roles at larger and larger organizations, this may not be the path for everyone.

As she points out, leaders at large companies focus on their particular domain of expertise, whether that’s finance, regulatory, HR, marketing, operations or others. Within their silo, they may have support teams focused on tax compliance, for instance, or benefits administration. However, a smaller business offers more hands-on experience across a function. For example, a chief marketing officer may be involved in all aspects of digital marketing, trade show coordination, content creation and other tasks. You may prefer this diverse work experience to leading teams that oversee specific services. By being clear about what kind of role will satisfy your professional goals and desires, you become more engaged and productive, she adds.

“You have to define these goals and be a self advocate. Executives often aren’t as proactive as they should be when it comes to regularly revisiting their professional goals,” she said. 

life changes and opportunities

Two reasons why you may want to reconsider your professional goals are unexpected opportunities and personal life changes, which may lead to a realignment of your priorities. Very often opportunities will steer you to career moves you otherwise wouldn’t consider — whether that’s taking on a role outside your comfort zone or expanding responsibilities in your current situation. When that happens, you should map an alternative route for your career because additional doors have been opened to you.

Changes in your personal life will also have a significant impact on career decisions, so make sure you reconcile your professional needs with your personal ones. For instance, family obligations may require you to scale back hours in the office or limit your job mobility. On the other hand, as many senior executives are also empty nesters, they may find freedom to change locations and take on better roles. How your personal circumstances affect your goal assessment will differ from anyone else, so there is no magic formula for making the right choice. However, keep in mind that sacrificing personal satisfaction in favor of career ambition is not sustainable, and this is one of the key causes for professional burnout.
Determining your professional goals is not a one time exercise. Just as you would in any business, reassessing objectives based on current conditions and future outlook will help you better attain the outcomes you desire.

three tips to help you refine career goals

1. consult trusted confidants 

These can be mentors, colleagues, career coaches, friends and family members. As you move higher up on the corporate ladder, you will want to maintain relationships with trusted individuals who you have historically sought out for advice. At the same time, don’t forget to develop relationships with new advisors who can provide a different perspective.

2. assess personal circumstances 

Life changes often force us to reprioritize the goals we set earlier on. Your professional goal is a convergence of intellectual desires and personal needs. Placing too much emphasis on one area may force you to have regrets elsewhere later on, especially as you pursue a senior leadership role. Carefully weigh the balance necessary to satisfy all of your needs and guide your professional journey accordingly.

3. be specific about your goals

“I want to be CEO” might be a nice-sounding objective, but you should be able to answer why or what kind of leader you want to become. This will clarify your objectives — for instance, you desire to lead a global sales organization because of your strong business development skills and insights into many different markets.