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What Women Need to Know About the Best Path to the C-Suite

There are two basic career paths in the corporate world, but women are too seldom on the one that leads to the top.

In 25 years of advocating for women’s success in business, I have found that most women are on a career path that does not lead to the top. In a 2019 study, the National Association for Female Executives learned that just 15 percent of the women executives surveyed had detailed information about the two basic career paths for corporate employees. Moreover, only 14 percent of women say they were encouraged to consider one of the essential jobs that lead to the top.

Two paths

In order to contend for positions at the highest ranks of a company, including CEO, women need a better understanding of the difference between line roles and staff roles.

Line roles are responsible for revenue generation, and this experience is essential to becoming a CEO. These positions are commonly known as P&L (profit-and-loss) responsibility.

Staff roles serve an advisory or support function for those who generate revenue. Human resources, finance, legal, and communications departments are all examples of staff roles. Employees in these departments may reach the C-suite as direct reports to the CEO as General Counsel, Chief Human Resources Officer, or Chief Financial Officer, but they won’t make CEO without proven profit-generation.

Experience in both line and staff roles builds a strong resume for the CEO position, but historically women have faced difficulty moving from staff to line jobs.

Profit and loss

Learning the basics of P&L responsibility can help women start their careers on the most advantageous path.

An executive in a P&L position is accountable for the profitability of her business and for driving revenue results, which includes monitoring the net income after expenses. A common first job on this career path is in sales.

Those with P&L jobs enjoy autonomy, deciding what products the company makes or services it delivers. They have direct influence on how company resources are allocated and deal directly with customers or clients. A common fear is that P&L responsibility is about math, but these jobs require a minimal amount of financial acumen and always come with support from the finance department.

With a thorough understanding of the paths and options available to them, women can better position themselves for jobs at the top.

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