Q: My goal is to be a CEO of a good-sized company. I'd like to stay in the sector I'm used to (manufacturing) and wonder what I should be doing to reach this goal.

Janet, 31, senior director, finance

A: It's smart to start preparing early in your career so you can acquire the knowledge, skills, and experiences you'll need.

First, be very clear in your mind about your motivation. How do you answer the question, "why do you want to be a CEO?" If you can't articulate it, you're less likely to achieve it.

Now give some deep thought to what it takes to be an effective executive leader. Consider the knowledge base, to be sure, but also the intellectual and emotional components. Who would you like to emulate, and why?

For example, in manufacturing, you'll want to be knowledgeable about production processes, supply chain challenges, and distribution issues. You'll also need to craft and communicate a vision for your company, setting a tone that helps employees (and, potentially, investors) believe in you. And you'll need the leadership skills to build an effective management team.

Where do you stand? If you haven't gotten close to your company's core business processes, use your current role to gain as much insight as you can, but also explore opportunities to lead other functions. Also seek opportunities to be actively involved in strategic processes that pull together cross-functional groups. You'll also need to understand marketing, sales, HR, etc., so obtain experience or education in those areas.

Develop as a leader, creating a style that is authentic for you. For example, if you're more of an introvert, don't try to be a wide-open extrovert. At the same time, recognize that you need to be the face of the company, so learn to interact effectively with all types of people, from your line staff to your board of directors.

Create a network of advocates within your industry. If you're not active in industry groups or professional organizations, it's time to get involved. This will help you build relationships that can lead to new opportunities, as well as helping you learn your business more deeply.

Be open to surprise opportunities and be willing to take risks. For example, if you have a chance for a one-year role in a different division or an overseas posting, even if you don't see direct relevance, take the risk.

Find people to learn from. Some may be formal relationships, such as a mentor or a coach. These can be of great value, and worth the investment of time. Serve on boards for other organizations such as local nonprofits; you'll learn a great deal as you give back to the community.

Above all, be curious! Ask people why they do their work in a certain way, how they developed a process, or what better ways to do things they see. Be an engaged learner, open to new viewpoints and opportunities and you'll be laying the foundation for continued professional advancement.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.