How to Prepare Yourself for the Executive Chair

Comedian Steve Martin once said that if you want to be a millionaire, the first thing you have to do is get a million dollars. Most advice for positioning yourself for executive positions mirrors Martin’s sentiments: If you want to land in the executive chair, the first thing you need to do is get executive experience. I’ll counter with my own observation: If you want to land in the executive chair, start planning to do so when you’re in high school.

Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat
by Linda Henman


In today’s fast-paced, unprecedented, and unpredictable economy, many executives simply don’t know what to do. Conventional methods-which many never entirely understood in the first place-often don’t work during economic upheaval. Executives, especially CEOs, need something better. They need a guide that identifies the roadblocks and points out the landmines. In her more than 30 years of working with hundreds of executives, Dr. Linda Henman has observed the critical elements of success, both for the new leader and the one who aspires to the next level of success. In Landing in the Executive Chair, you’ll learn how to:

  • Avoid the pitfalls and identify a clear plan for personal and organizational stress.
  • Leverage the first months in a new executive position- that time of transition that promises opportunity and challenge, but also brings a period of great vulnerability.
  • Create a competitive advantage, set the right tone, make effective decisions, keep talent inside your doors, and establish credibility-all while navigating unfamiliar and turbulent waters.

As organizations expand and grow, the skills that led to success often won’t sustain further development in a more complex, high-stakes environment. Present and future executives need more. They need Landing in the Executive Chair.

Too late? Then, start preparation now. These ideas will help:

  1. If you didn’t have the advantages of a stellar education, remedy that situation. Study history, literature, art, music, and foreign languages. Begin today to augment your liberal arts knowledge, because doing so will help you with creative problem solving, conversation, and life balance.
  2. Address the nuts and bolts of business too. If you don’t understand finance and accounting, enroll in a course immediately. With so many online options, there’s really no excuse to overlook this essential building block to your success.
  3. Read. Read the Wall Street Journal and your local paper every day. If your city has a weekly business journal, read that too. Read your leading-edge industry publications, Forbes, other finance journals, and popular business books. At any given time, you should have read at least two books on the best seller list. In addition to giving you valuable information, this reading will make you a more interesting person.
  4. Map out a path to the executive position you want. How did others get there? Position yourself for each rung on the ladder; take the requisite training; learn the relevant skills; and acquire the needed experience.
  5. If you don’t hold a finance or operations position, consider cross training. Will the CEO allow you to work in these arenas for a short time? You’ll need this sort of groundwork for upward mobility. You can read books about HR and marketing, but getting your head in and hands on the finances and operations will pay huge premiums later on.
  6. If you hold an HR position, get out as soon as you can. HR professionals tend to hit both glass walls and glass ceilings. They find that they can’t get promoted outside the HR function, and that road seldom leads to the executive chair.
  7. Look the part. Everything about you should scream ‘Success!’ Dress well. Get a good haircut. Surround yourself with quality objects: car, pen, shoes, brief case, etc. If you’re uncertain about points of etiquette, hire a coach. If you’re out of shape, get a trainer. In short, send the message that you’ll be 100% at home in the C-suite, boardroom, or country club.
  8. Get a mentor. The military, better than many civilian organizations I’ve worked with, understands the value of committing to high potentials – a commitment that turns those who may not have reached their potential into top performers. Many senior military officers begin mentoring future candidates when those would-be generals are still captains. Use this best practice for yourself. Find someone inside or outside your organization who has achieved what you aspire to do. Ask them to give you advice when you need it. Few will refuse to drink a cup of coffee with you while you pick their brains. Instead, they will feel flattered.
  9. Get a coach. In the world of professional athletics, no one questions the value of coaching top performers, yet in business, the stigma seems to linger that those who need coaching must be ‘at risk.’ I have built my entire business model on the opposite approach, however. As ‘the virtuoso coach,’ I only work with high potentials.
    Recently the St. Louis Cardinals added former Cardinal player John Mabry to their roster of batting coaches. Mark McGuire will continue to coach the right-handed batters, and Mabry will concentrate on the left-handers. This focused approach should serve as the gold standard for hiring business coaches too. High potentials should hire specialized business coaches who have built successful businesses themselves and who have developed a proven track record for helping others get promoted.
  10. Conduct your private life with uncompromising integrity. Unlike some of the aforementioned, you have 100% control over this. No one can rob you of your integrity, but you can give it away. I have seen so many high potentials derail themselves from a seemingly-sure path to success with bad decisions in their personal lives. Assume everything you do will make the front page, because some day it just might.

As the Baby Boomers leave executive positions in droves, others will need to ascend the corporate ladder, but too few have actively prepared themselves. No matter when you plan to climb the next rungs of the ladder, now is the time to start planning.

About the Author

Dr. Linda Henman, the catalyst for virtuoso organizations, is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair, among other works. She is an expert on setting strategy, planning succession, and developing talent. For more than 30 years she has helped executives and boards in Fortune 500 Companies and privately-held organizations dramatically grow their businesses. She was one of eight succession planning experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products. Some of her other clients include Emerson Electric, Avon, Kraft Foods, Edward Jones, and Boeing. She can be reached in St. Louis at