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How to get to the top in the corporate world (if you are sure that you want to)!

Updated on March 17, 2011


Most of us would like a big house in the countryside, and a pad in the city, a private jet, a private yacht, a chauffeur-driven car, a top of the range sports car, no worries about money, etc. and one sure fire way to get all that is a top level job in a large corporate company, with a salary anywhere in the range from £500k to £20million, or more.

But how do you get to the top, and, once you've got there, is it really worth it?

What is it like at the top?

These days, life is not so great at the top, unless you really love that kind of life, where your job is everything, and nothing else matters as much (including your family). The romanticised view of life at the top from the days of old, or Hollywood films, where life is all golf, expensive lunches, and relaxing on the yacht, is rarely attained these days.

Instead, those at the top are wedded to their jobs, working 18 hours a day, or more, seven days a week, and carry on working when they go away with their family on holiday. There is never a time when they stop working. Is that the life for you?

For those that do it, it is almost always more than the money that is driving them. Usually, it is a combination of the power, and the feeling of self-importance, and a love for what they are doing as well. Otherwise, once they had £5million or £10million in the bank, they would retire and lead a life of leisure, but that just isn't for them. They keep going on, earning money that they don't need and could never spend in their lifetime, and they can't retire, otherwise they would die of boredom. For them, their life is defined by their job. Without it, they are nothing.

I mention this because many people may read this hub looking for tips on how to get to the top, because they want the wealth, and I would urge them to consider first whether all that goes with a life at the top is what they really want, and whether or not the hard struggle will be worth it.

Yes, I want it. How do I get there?

If you only want the wealth, and don't crave the power, don't love doing business more than life itself, don't relish the idea of always being "at work" wherever you are physically, then you don't want to get to the top, you just want to make a lot of money.  There are better ways to do that than to try to get to the top in the corporate world.  You would be better off starting your own business, but we are not going to cover that here.  The rest of this hub will cover what you do to get to the top, because you've decided that that is absolutely what you want.

Before you go any further, you should read my hub at   This covers off "getting in the club of senior management", and I'm not going to duplicate that here.

Where do I start?

Well, it's not absolutely essential, but it is a huge disadvantage not to have an honours degree, grade second or above. Then, if your degree was not an MBA, you should do an MBA. These two qualifications allow you to go in at a higher level than if you don't have them, and can save you 5 to 10 years in your career progression, and time is important, because you have to hit the dizzy heights of board-level whilst you are still in your thirties, otherwise you are not seen as a high-flyer, and are written off.

Interestingly, once you have started your career and done 5 years or more in employment, an MBA is then of much less value. You tend to be judged on what you have achieved in those 5 years, and the MBA is just a badge, which cannot compensate for the right level of experience.

It helps enormously if you can join a consultancy company, or take on a role where you get out and about and meet a lot of people in a lot of businesses, because the second thing you need is a huge network of contacts. You need to pro-actively build this network continuously, and if you did an MBA course, then make sure you keep in touch with everyone on your course, because they are all aiming to be the high-flyers that could be in a position to give you a job in a few years' time.

It also helps enormously if you went to Oxbridge, not because of the quality of what you learn there, but because of the people you meet there. Many have parents or relatives who are running corporate businesses, so they too can be instrumental in getting you a job. Again, make sure that you keep in touch with as many of your student colleagues as possible after you graduate. LinkedIn is currently highly fashionable as the "Facebook for the business world", and an excellent way to stay in touch with, or keep track of, everyone in your network.

Where do I go next?

Well, depending upon where you start, you will have different options open to you. If you joined a consultancy company, then it is worth trying to get one or two promotions within that company, or by going to another consultancy company, before you leave the consulting world, and you should be aiming to get a promotion every two years, otherwise you are moving too slowly. You then need to get out of consulting after about six years maximum, otherwise you will have become pigeon-holed as a consultant, and will not be able to move easily. That is, unless you want to spend the rest of your career in consulting, which you may well want to do.

If consultancy is not for you, and it isn't for many, or even most, then you need to keep on the move, again every two to three years. If you are clear about what market sector you want to work in, then use networking, advertised jobs, etc. to either get a promotion in the company you are in, or by moving to another company, but make sure you get promoted every two to three years, averaging nearer to two, otherwise you will not be moving up the ladder fast enough.

Thirty years ago, it was considered that you were not loyal and not worthy if you kept moving from company to company. It was suspected that you couldn't hold down a job for very long, which is why you had to keep moving. In modern times, the opposite is true. If you stay with one company for ten years, you are not considered loyal, but instead considered inflexible and too narrowly experienced.  Loyalty doesn't seem to matter anymore.

If you do not know what market sector you want to work in, or want to work across several in your career, then you need to change sector at each job change, whilst you are still relatively junior, as it is very hard to change sector once you have amassed ten or fifteen years experience in just one sector. Again, you will be labelled as too narrowly experienced to be capable of changing.

What do I do in my jobs?

This is where we touch on some of the content in my "Glass Ceilings" hub, in terms of getting yourself into the "club" of senior management.

You need to be continually managing upwards, rather than doing the job you are currently in. A phrase I've heard a few times is "Don't dress for the job you are in, dress for the next job you want". In practise, that means dressing the same way as the level above you. If the level above wear suits and ties, but the level you are at do not, then you should wear a suit and tie. This makes people subconsciously picture you as someone at the next level up, including, of course, those who are at the next level up, and that then means that they are going to see you as the obvious choice to promote when a vacancy comes along - you already look the part !

In addition, and this is what is really meant by managing up in this context, you need to be trying to do as much of your boss's job for them as you can. That means that you need to put competent people in below you, who can run the business that you are responsible for without much intervention from you, and chiefly, of course, that means without you spending much of your time managing your business.

Instead, you are going to be proving how you are ready to work at the next level up. You will do this by asking your boss what they are working on, and if you can help them. You will ask them if you can attend some meetings on their behalf to lighten their load. In those meetings, you will be giving yourself the chance to impress the people who you would be dealing with if you were the next level up. If you can replace your boss regularly in some series of meetings, then the others in the meeting will start to see you as equivalent to your boss, especially if you make sure that your boss has delegated you the power to make the decisions that he/she would be able to make in those meetings. It is important that you are not seen to be the messenger for your boss, but instead are seen as the representative of your boss - i.e. you carry his/her weight at the meeting.

In addition, you will be aiming to become your boss's trusted advisor and confidant who they will discuss the big issues with. This gives you access to what the next level up are discussing, and again puts you ahead of your peers who do not have that access. Of course, you have to be absolutely discreet and not leak that information to your peers. For one, it will lose you the trust of your boss, and they won't share any more important information with you, and secondly, you will be losing the "knowledge is power" advantage over your peers and putting them back on a level playing-field with yourself.

This all sounds very manipulative and sneaky.

It is, but if you want to get to the top, it is what you have to do, because you are effectively in a world of high politics, and politics is manipulative and sneaky by its very nature, since you are trying to influence people to do your bidding when you have no hierarchical power over them.

Now, you can have a highly successful and happy career, reaching a senior management level (but not board level) in your forties without doing any of this, and that path may well be what you would prefer to do. It is what many prefer to do, because they are not driven to get to the top. Remember that this hub is about getting that MD or CEO title in your early forties, so it is "pedal to the ground" the whole way on getting your next promotion. Although seven layers is supposed to be the optimum in any company, from top to bottom, very few companies have that few layers, and most have eight to eleven, with some having as many as fourteen or more.

Depending upon where your degree / MBA allows you to start, you may need about eight promotions to get to MD / CEO. If you did an MBA as a post-graduate degree, then you might have been 24 when you started your first job. A promotion every two years means you will be 40 when you get to MD / CEO, and you cannot afford to be much slower than that (45 at most), otherwise you are not seen as a high-flyer, and are unlikely to make it.

Is there another way?

Yes, there are several other ways. One way is to have a parent who is a CEO / MD. That way you are likely to be able to start in their organisation high up - being one of Rupert Murdoch's children, for example, means you are not going to start at the bottom and struggle to make your way up!

Another way is to start your own business, doing something which is revolutionary and extremely popular - i.e. to be the next Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). Then, your own experience and position grows with the growth of your company. You start at the top of something tiny, and it becomes a global corporate with you still at the top.  That's the best way, as you never have to apply for a promotion!

But that's about it for options. I've focussed in the last couple of sections on getting promoted in the company that you are already in, but don't forget that network, which is just as likely to get you your next promotion. Make sure your contacts know how well you are getting on, and that you are looking for your next promotion. People would always rather employ someone that they already know, than someone who is an unknown, even if they come highly recommended, or with a fantastic CV.

Increasingly, and I mustn't leave it out, people are trying to build themselves web presences, and this is seen as the "new way" of getting to the top. Joining business forums and discussion groups, and making useful and informative contributions, so that you develop a reputation as a thought-leader, can give you a big boost, depending upon the types of role you are going for. This can lead to you being invited to speak at conferences and seminars, or to appear on discussion panels, and this builds your name and reputation in your industry, and can again lead to job offers from people who want your knowledge in their organisation.

But I would also urge you to approach this with the right level of caution. What you put up on the web has a habit of staying there forever. You may delete your comments at a later date, but someone may have copied them and forwarded them on to someone else, or re-broadcast your words, and you have no way of deleting that. So make sure that what you are saying could not be damaging to you in the future, because a future potential employer may well research you on line and read what you have written. This is great if what you have written is great, of course, so make sure that what you contribute is informative, useful, insightful, and valuable, and not highly critical, offensive, or banal.


If you have decided that getting to the top is right for you, with all it brings with it, then you have no time to lose.  You have to retain focus, follow the "rules", and keep on relentlessly going for that next promotion.  

It's not the life for me, nor for many others, so you will have the advantage that you will overtake the likes of us on the way, but many will resent you for being so ambitious, and criticise you for not doing your current job and just chasing the next promotion, or say that you are out of your depth.  You won't care, of course, because you are driven and you are striving for your goal, and those criticisms do not matter to you.  You know where you want to be, and you know how you are going to get there.  Best of luck - I hope you enjoy it when you do get there.  One big bonus is that, having got there, it is relatively easy to find a job that is a step back off of the intense pressure - you have the reputation, so you can become a consultant, work on advisory panels, take a non-executive position or two, and share your experience and knowledge in calmer waters, whilst you watch the next set of up and coming high-flyers making their way to the top!


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      Deji Akanbi 6 years ago

      That was an excellent article.