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Executive leadership is one of the most fulfilling career paths available today. You are given the power to shape the direction of an organization, making decisions that impact not only the company but also its employees, customers and stakeholders. You come face-to-face with complex and stimulating challenges that require innovative solutions. The work done in an executive role can reach a global scale, extending influence past your given company or even industry. While not the sole source of fulfillment, it also cannot be ignored that executive roles often come with competitive compensation packages.
However, a prevailing sentiment I have come to recognize is that the path to executive leadership is straight and narrow. One must have come from the best background, get a finance undergraduate followed quickly by an MBA — both from one of the top schools, I might add — and enter the workforce with all the right connections to successfully carve a career as an executive.
I am here to refute this notion. Many successful executives come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and their journeys are marked by hard work, resilience and a commitment to personal and professional growth. They have overcome various challenges and barriers to reach their positions today, demonstrating that it’s not the size of one’s bank account but the size of their aspirations and efforts that truly matter.
My own career path is a testament to this. As a child, I arrived in the United Kingdom as an immigrant fleeing a military dictatorship. I attended the University of Essex — a wonderful university. My degree was in mathematics, operations research and economics. I started at the company where I built my career as a graduate recruit, but with hard work and perseverance, I rose in the ranks and held some of the top executive positions within a multinational organization.
In fact, diversity in leadership is essential for organizations to thrive. Diverse perspectives and life experiences enrich decision-making processes, fostering innovation and adaptability. Organizations benefit when leaders come from different walks of life, as it reflects a broader range of perspectives and resonates with a diverse customer base.
While privilege can certainly provide advantages, it is not a prerequisite for executive leadership. The qualities and skills that truly matter — vision, strategic thinking, adaptability, resilience and the ability to inspire and lead teams — can be developed and cultivated by individuals from all backgrounds. That being said, I have laid out several strategies I found essential when it came to my journey up the totem pole, which I believe could be beneficial to anybody hoping to follow a similar path.
1. The power of relationships
Effective networking and mentorship are indispensable tools for career progression and personal growth. These relationships can be transformative, providing both guidance and opportunities and should not be discounted. A well-cultivated network can open doors to new opportunities, provide access to valuable information, and offer support during challenging times. Networking allows individuals to connect with those who can provide guidance, mentorship and opportunities for collaboration and career advancement.
Whether you allow your network to grow organically or actively seek out relationships, my biggest advice is to be genuine. Authenticity is key to building meaningful connections. Be yourself, show interest in others, and establish connections based on mutual respect and shared interests. Relationships formed in this way are the ones that have the ability to push you forward to an executive level in your career.
2. Navigating complexities in decision-making
Decisiveness is an imperative aspect of executive leadership. At the executive level, the decisions made can have profound and far-reaching consequences for an organization. The complexity of decisions often arises from multiple factors, including a diverse range of stakeholders, the interplay of short-term and long-term objectives, and the need to balance risks and rewards. Moreover, the speed of decision-making is often crucial, particularly in rapidly changing business environments.
Gaining a reputation as someone who can quickly and effectively make decisions is essential to reaching the executive level. These decisions must be consistent with the overarching mission and vision of the company, ensuring that they contribute to the long-term success and sustainability of the organization. Additionally, they must prove to weigh both short-term and long-term consequences, showing a balanced approach to risk. Having this level of foresight demonstrates strong decision-making abilities.
3. Cultivating a growth mindset
That being said, don’t expect every decision you make to be good. A major product launch might not go as planned; a strategic initiative might fall short of expectations, or market conditions might change suddenly. It’s in these moments that resilience shines. Resilient leaders acknowledge the setback, but they don’t dwell on it. Instead, they focus on solutions, adapt to new circumstances, and maintain a positive outlook. They understand that failure is not a reflection of their worth but an opportunity for growth and improvement.
Consistently showing a growth mindset — viewing setbacks as valuable learning experiences rather than insurmountable obstacles—will demonstrate that you have the resilience to weather the inevitable failures that come with executive leadership and can use them to strengthen the company.
4. A results-oriented approach
Finally, let your work speak for itself by taking a results-oriented approach. Executives are responsible for steering organizations toward their goals and must be able to turn strategic plans into concrete results. You show you have the skills and mindset required for high-level leadership positions by consistently exceeding expectations in your current role.
When seeking an executive position, it’s not enough to list job responsibilities—you need to present a compelling narrative of how your contributions have positively impacted an organization’s bottom line. The path to executive leadership is broader than many think and can be cultivated with effort in the right direction.