Your 3 step guide to becoming CEO

Go broad, go deep and then go high.

by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell
Last Updated: 29 Mar 2018

This is an edited extract from The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviours That Transform Ordinary People Into World-Class Leaders, by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell.


People assume CEOs had their eyes on the top job from day one.  Actually that’s not the case - our research shows 70% of CEOs don’t start out their careers with that goal in mind. Nevertheless, we saw patterns emerge in the routes to the top.  To fast-track your future, consider your career in stages:

Years 0-8: Go broad

The position of CEO requires one to be the ultimate generalist. We see roots of that profile early in future CEOs’ career trajectories. They build a wide breadth of skills and experiences early on by moving across functions, industries, companies, and geographies. Making unconventional moves is both easiest and least risky at this stage.

For those starting out their careers in large companies, this diversity of early experiences often comes from rotational programs that offer new recruits opportunities to try their hand at different parts of the business.

In professional services companies, working on projects solving different types of problems for clients across a wide range of industries delivers similar exposure. Small or startup companies also afford an opportunity to wear multiple hats at the same time.

Some future CEOs accelerate their progress at this stage with an MBA— either a full- time program or part- time around a demanding work schedule. But others have a different path.

"Christine", a first-time CEO who now runs a health and wellness company, started as a horse trainer, later taught financial literacy classes, and then shifted into corporate training before opening new retail stores for a fitness company.

No matter your starting point, the key priority guiding choices in this first stage is to maximize the breadth and pace of your learning, ideally in direct contact with role models for high professional standards.

Much like early life experiences, early professional experiences form a powerful imprint that influences one’s views on what is possible. This makes it even more important to learn from a broad range of people, styles, and situations. This is also a time to build valuable foundational skills that will be harder to master later, particularly problem- solving, financial analysis, and oral and written communications skills.

Years 9 to 16: Go deep  

If stage 1 is about learning above all, stage 2 is about measurable results above all. In these years, future CEOs work toward general management roles that directly drive top line and/or bottom-line revenue or profits.

That might mean running a P&L, or it might mean being a functional leader in sales, marketing, or operations. Most important, future CEOs are demonstrating that they can lead others to produce outsize measurable results.

Over 90% of our CEOs had general management experience prior to becoming CEO. In this second stage, career stories of leaders who go on to become strong CEOs are peppered with examples such as: ‘I took the Southwest region from the worst performing to top quartile across the company’ or ‘I turned marketing from a dusty department producing PowerPoint charts into a generator of 90% of new million- dollar leads in the company’ or ‘I built the plant in Mexico in record time and on budget— unprecedented for our company’.

Stage 2 is the time to show measurable impact and value as a result of your leadership.

Years 17-24: Go high.

Stage 3 is where we see careers of future CEOs take a dramatically different turn. While many will remain effective functional leaders, middle managers, or even P&L operators, future CEOs differentiate themselves as enterprise leaders.

As enterprise leaders, they make decisions taking into account the context and impact on the entire business rather than confining their view only to their own area, and they impact results beyond their immediate scope of authority. At this stage, future CEOs impact success of the entire company.

By the time they finish this third stage, roughly 24 years into their career, future CEOs have typically held eight to 11 positions, which translates to between two to three years of tenure per role. They also have been exposed to between four and six companies.

When appointing CEOs, boards look for them to have roughly a ten- year runway in the role. Leaders start to look like future CEOs in this final period when they succeed in growing influence and demonstrating initiative beyond the formal authority of any given role. For example, a vice president might lead a company- wide initiative that requires them to influence peers and other senior players who don’t report to them.

This is also the time in which future CEOs expand their reach beyond the walls of their company. They build a brand within their industry, taking visible, conversation- defining positions on the driving questions of the day and communicating them through speaking opportunities, the media, and by convening other CEOs and leaders.

There are no ready- made maps to the top, especially for those in the first two stages of their career. No matter where you are today, the real takeaway is this: Don’t look at your career as a succession of jobs to land; instead, look at your decisions as a portfolio of experiences to build.

Is your career portfolio CEO-ready?

Below are the common requirements we have seen in hundreds of CEO selection processes we’ve supported. It is rare that a single candidate meets all the requirements, but building a portfolio of experiences that covers at least five of these areas makes it easier to get on the slate of final candidates.

• Industry experience

• P&L leadership on a similar scale

• Evidence of strong people leadership— signs that you can attract and develop talent (people look at your Glassdoor ratings!)

• Proven success in a relevant context; e.g., M&A if the company needs to grow through acquisition, growth if that’s the primary goal, etc.

• Breadth of experience across different types of business problems and roles; e.g., delivering growth and improving operational efficiencies

• Strategic vision and ability to set direction and champion change

• Operational and financial acumen

• Ability to work with the board and external stakeholders

• International experience (where relevant)

The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviours That Transform Ordinary People Into World-Class Leaders, by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell, is published by Virgin books, price £14.99

Image credit: T.Dallas/Shutterstock

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