There are a number of different paths to become a c-level executive, since there are so many c-suite positions. The path to become a chief information officer (CIO) is typically different than the one you would follow to become a chief financial officer (CFO), and so on. If you want to become a c-level executive, you should identify the position you want and then work specifically toward that. All of these positions require a great deal of business acumen and a strong ability to communicate, so you will typically want to work on those skills as you advance through your career. In most cases, you will want to go to work for a company in the field that interests you, take a job in the department that is relevant to your desired c-suite position and then work your way up.
The c-suite is a group of executive positions that are found in many corporate structures. Not every corporation has each of these c-level executives, so you should take that into account when you first begin your career. Another factor to consider is that you may need to move among companies as you climb the corporate ladder, and that in many cases the skills and knowledge required to become a c-level executive can translate very well from one business to another. In other cases, you will be better off staying with one company throughout your career, especially if you are able to impress upper management early on.
At one point, there were very clear paths that could be followed to become a c-level executive. Each position had a narrowly defined set of requirements that most boards looked for, so prospective candidates had their careers laid out early on. Those paths are still viable in many circumstances, but depending on what type of c-level executive you want to become, your options may be more varied. Many chief executive officers (CEOs) first hold the chief operations officer (COO) position, but others come to the job having first been board presidents or even general managers. If you want to become a CEO, some of your goals should be to gain experience with board meetings and to sit in on quarterly analyst calls.
To become a c-level executive in another capacity, your options may be even broader. Many vice presidents of operations go on to become COOs, but there are many other paths as well. Some COOs come up through sales or business development departments, depending on the industry. Similarly, many chief information and chief technology officers come up through software engineering, where historically the career path required you to first hold the position of information technology director. Regardless of the path you take, or the type of c-level executive you want to become, you may want to find a mentor within your corporate structure to help keep your career on the right track and to act as an advocate with upper management.