Why tomorrow's CEOs need a more circuitous route to the top

Future leaders need to take "'the road less travelled"' on their path to the top if they want the skills to succeed.

by Melanie Sweet
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2023

It was in 2015 when The New York Times reported that fewer women ran the biggest companies than men named John. Fast forward to now, and 13% of all new S&P 500 CEOs last year were female, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart – a positive shift, albeit a slow one.

But while diversity in the sense of representation is a necessary focal point widely understood by businesses, diversity in the sense of curated professional experiences should also make its way to the top of the boardroom agenda.

Leaders who, through thoughtful career choices, bring more than what’s on the job description will offer a unique competitive advantage for businesses as the economic climate continues to prove disruptive. Hires like former ad chief Wendy Clark as a partner at financial services company The Consello Group show that smart companies already know to prioritise adaptability and an unconventional path.

Clark has intentionally stayed ahead of the curve since her first job as a receptionist, deliberately designing a ‘road less travelled’ trajectory for her career. As president of sparkling brands and strategic marketing at Coca-Cola, she helped to build the company’s flagship beverage into the biggest brand on Facebook. She then did a stint as SVP of advertising at AT&T, followed by periods as CEO at Dentsu International and DDB, two vastly different agency networks. Clark built a unique breadth and depth of experiences – likely one of the reasons she made Fast Company’s top ten list of ‘Innovative Business Disruptors’ in 2011.

Intentional polymaths

I like to call these leaders ‘intentional polymaths’ – execs who have trodden a path to the top by taking an often unconventional, yet strategic route, picking up valuable knowledge along the way.

The pinnacle is an individual who can offer all the skills that companies look for in a senior executive in a collective, tangible skillset that team members can adopt, creating a ripple effect across the wider business.

Another excellent example of this is Leena Nair, global CEO of Chanel, who joined the business after a 30-year stint at Unilever, where she held a variety of roles, from general manager of home and personal care, and foods to SVP leadership of organisation development and global head of diversity and inclusion, before finally parting as chief human resources officer.

Similarly, Helena Marston of Purplebricks has experience of rapid business transformation and growth from her various HR-focused roles at Vodafone, Jaguar Land Rover and Virgin Media, that empowered her to lead a global team as CEO.

This varied portfolio of experience, perspectives and merit arms these leaders with the multifaceted skill set to solve their specific business challenges.

Professional scar tissue

As business needs continue to evolve in line with disruptive economic factors, and long-term challenges, such as the AI revolution, loom large on the horizon, CEOs and boards need to adjust who, how and why they hire.

Yesterday's sought-after skills and capabilities are not the ones of today, and certainly not tomorrow. Historically, C-suite leaders charted a well-anticipated route to the top. CMOs started their careers as product managers before ascending through the ranks of the marketing department and COOs were often seen as CEOs-in-waiting.

Now, strikingly, the opposite needs to become true: leaders who have moved roles in line with evolving technology and shifting audiences, anticipating emerging business needs, should be recognised for the depth and breadth of value they bring. Those who prioritise hiring them for their adaptability and unconventional experience will stand stronger on the other side.

Much of this adaptability arises from professional scar tissue formed over time, often due to navigating previous cycles of disruption. But it is forged during the good times too, whether it be successful funding rounds and investments, M&As or helping to helm a business through a rapid growth cycle across regions and markets. These leaders can leverage it in moments of need, helping to formulate solutions to problems that can take a business from good to great.

The fact that there is still much work to be done to bring greater diversity to the top of the business world is not lost on anyone. And delving deeper shows that the hiring of senior figures at the biggest companies with a breadth of experience commensurate to the role might represent the next significant shift toward long-term thinking.

For too long, businesses have remained reactionary, appealing to short-term demand. But staying ahead means searching for talent outside of narrow lanes. As soon as companies can evolve their talent agenda and redefine what a good leader looks like, growth won’t be far behind.   

Melanie Sweet is SVP global talent advisory at MediaLink

Image credit: Marco Bottigelli via Getty Images