Many people ask me what it takes to be a CEO. Some even want me to help them create a roadmap. The answer is not as simple as it seems. There are so many variables. In some cases, its dependent upon the aspirations someone has, and that may include things like: the size of the company, the industry, the scope and breadth of products and services, and the geographic reach – domestic or global. It’s hard to build a simple recipe for getting to CEO. If you work in small companies, you can get there because your father was the company owner and you are the next in line. As your aspirations grow, or the size of the companies you are working in grow, there are many bridges to get to a CEO position, and these include a mix of leadership challenges you need to have, as well as the networks and relationships you need to build.
If someone has a desire to be a CEO, they need to determine what area they want to play in, what size company, what products/services they are attracted to, and why they want to be a CEO. Running a company – being a CEO – is a job of extraordinary responsibility. People generally come from two tracks. The first is the marketing side where they have developed incredible skills at understand what the customer/market wants. The second is the financial side, understanding how to keep a company in the black – to be financially solvent.
Here are a few job titles that can give a person an edge toward becoming a CEO, but it’s not limited to these:
- Financial: CFO; EVP Finance; Controller
- Marketing/Sales: EVP Marketing; Brand Manager; Regional Manager of Sales
Some companies want an executive to move across different functional areas, if they can, so they have both financial and marketing, yet it’s not always easy to do that because the interest/talents/opportunities are just not there. Nike does some creative career pathing. For example, when a person in marketing has been there a long time, they will career path them into operations or some other area outside of where they have developed a strong competence. They make them a manager/leader over others with strong competence in the functional area – so they are to the smartest in the expertise, but are the smartest in managing people with that talent. This helps build their “leadership” skills for managing complexity, size, scope, and range of business problems. Not all companies take this risk or see this as a way to develop leadership talent. Many more keep people siloed in their same functional area. Nike’s strategy builds leadership skills, rather than just building more competence in a functional area.
Key Leadership Characteristics
Many, many books are written about the characteristics of leadership, such as smart, wise, good judgment, focused, compassionate, supportive, visionary, courageous, inspiring, self-confident, determined, straight-forward, forward-looking, fair-minded, caring, ambitious. They go all over the place, and in the older style of leadership, they leaned more towards the ‘heroic’ leadership characteristics that made people look up at a leader in awe. Today the newer admired characteristics are compassion, humility and ability to develop and inspire others. The trend in admired leadership has moved from the more “I-centric” to the more “we-centric” characteristics. The one characteristic that continues to be important over the centuries is “honesty.” In all research studies candor, honesty and trust trumps all other characteristic for leadership. If you are honest and trustworthy, you can lack some areas of competence and back fill with a talented direct report and still make it to the top.
Executive Skill Set
Leaders must be able to manage/lead people, drive change, have emotional intelligence, and really understand organization behavior. They need to be exceptional communicators, and understand the need be masters of engagement. They need to be inclusive in their style, and appreciative of the contributions of others. They need to be able to quell fear and help people get excited about the future. They need to be able to help break down silos and create environments for sharing and collaboration. They need to be innovative and encourage risk taking. They need to like to develop talent and encourage contributions from others. They need to know how to celebrate successes, set milestones, and help the organization work together as a whole. We have defined these key areas of leadership skill, and we call it these skills, The DNA of Leadership.
Strengthening Skills and Characteristics
Many times leaders rise up in an organization because they have competence in the industry. What is often lacking is the people side of the leadership equation. In that context, leadership presence is profoundly important. In other words, there is a body of work around how leaders carry themselves. We know that leaders set the tone. Leaders who are self-aware, and understand how they impact others, is crucial to leadership success. People who aspire to CEO need to understand their own habits of mind, and what brings people down or up. Just being good technically is not enough – it’s how a leader interacts with others, influences them and brings out the potential in the organization and business that makes the difference between a good CEO and a great CEO.
Moving Up to CEO
Promotion to CEO often requires that someone run a smaller business or division or strategic teams. I’ve coached many leaders who start out running a department; they are given broader responsibility for larger numbers of people, ad with each promotion the size and scope of the challenges increase. Often people demonstrate CEO capability when they show they can handle very difficult and challenging dimensions of the business – for example when a business is under fire and they can rally the sales or marketing teams to discover new and innovative ways to be successful again. These are the badges of courage, or success strategies that are looked for by the board that demonstrate the CEO capability. During interviews for CEO positions, there are two key questions that are asked. One is about “your greatest success” and the other is about “your greatest failures” and how you handled them. Moving up to CEO, it’s okay to have failures – and what’s more important is how you transform failures in learning lessons for growth.
Marketing for a CEO Position
If CEO is the career path a person wants most, there is a need to take a long-view and prepare starting early. If the hope is to find a CEO position in a different company than where a person is now the key to success is networking with HR Search Firms and other senior people in the industry you are seeking to work with. If the goal is to be considered for the CEO position within your current company, the key is to work with your HR Team and boss to let them know that you want to understand the internal path to reach your goal. For example, a woman executive at a pharmaceutical company who wanted to have a chance to move into the C-suite met with HR, and they mutually decided she needed to have a position in Sales. She was currently in Marketing, and so she took a lateral position to gain the learning from sales and marketing. While for this move it was lateral, not vertical, it positioned her for the next big vertical step up. Regardless of whether your next step is inside your company or outside to a new company, the key is to build a succession plan for yourself. If you can do this with help either inside or out, you will be getting additional help from others in supporting your next step.
Marketing/Networking for an External CEO Position
Currently, I have coaching clients who have asked me – confidentially – if I knew of other jobs and positions that would challenge them and also help them get closer to their C-suite career goals. Networking, both openly and confidentially is important to open up possibilities. Some people have luck contacting Search Firms and asking if they would be interested in taking their resumes, and also doing an interview. Search firms are always looking for fresh new faces to add to their database. Sometimes, becoming a speaker gets people in front of people who may just be looking. Creating Networking is the best solution.
Laying the Groundwork for a Future CEO Position
Many organizations use the term ‘high potential.” This often designates someone on the fast track to higher roles in a company. High potential are often chosen to lead special projects and those who do are often watched as candidates for promotion. So if a leader had it in his mind to be a CEO, he/she should talk with people inside the company about how to be selected for special initiatives, or better yet, should identify special initiatives and bring them to the attention of someone who can make the decision.
Advice for the Aspiring CEO
Being a CEO has sex appeal. CEOs have power, and sometimes people want to be CEOs because they seek the power and influence. It’s important for people to soul search and ask themselves “why I want to be a CEO.” If you have the talent to lead large organizations and if you have ideas for products, services to bring to market, then CEO is a wonderful career path. Understanding one’s own motivations is important in the process.
Judith E. Glaser is the Author of two best selling business books:
Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization - winner of the Bronze Award in the Leadership Category of the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards, and The DNA of Leadership; and the DVD and Workshop titled The Leadership Secret of Gregory Goose
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