How to Become a CEO: 9 Steps to Get You Into the Corner Office
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Wondering how to become a CEO and take charge of an organization? It's a common aspiration. Plenty of ambitious professionals aspire to the position of chief executive officer. But what does it actually take to reach that lofty goal?
Some people become CEOs by starting their own company and setting themselves up as the boss. That's how well-known entrepreneurs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg secured the top job. But in most cases, CEOs start out in junior positions and gradually take on more responsibilities as they climb the corporate ladder. That means getting the appropriate education, acquiring work experience, nurturing connections with people, and continually developing new skills and expertise. If you do the work and put in the effort, you can reach that level of success.
The information below outlines nine key steps that will help you rise through the ranks and prepare for the CEO position. You can also read about some of the most common characteristics that successful CEOs possess. And you can even get tips on how to make a good impression when it's time to interview for a spot in the executive suite.
- 9 steps to becoming a CEO
- Characteristics of successful CEOs
- 3 tips for success in a CEO job interview
9 Steps to Becoming a CEO
Many people dream of becoming the ultimate boss of an organization. With dedication, perseverance, and hard work, you can work your way up the corporate ladder. Here are nine concrete steps you can follow to enhance your chances of success:
1. Look for skill-building opportunities.
If you know for sure that you want to lead a company someday, then start gaining the skills you'll need as soon as possible—even as early as high school. Aim to expand your decision-making, organizational, communication, and leadership abilities any way you can. Possibilities include:
- Getting involved in student government
- Joining a debate team
- Becoming part of a young entrepreneurs club
- Leading a sports team
- Volunteering for a charity or nonprofit agency
The idea is to pursue any activity that will expose you to the realities of running a business or organizing and managing people.
2. Get a bachelor's degree.
Unless you're founding your own company, it's extremely unlikely that you'll be considered for a CEO role if you don't have a degree. Certainly, some chief executives have gotten where they are by forgoing formal education, working their way up from entry-level positions within their companies, and getting promoted based on experience. But such cases are relatively rare. In fact, a study of 2,600 American CEOs revealed that 92 percent of them had college degrees; those who didn't took 15 percent longer to reach the top job.1
That said, there isn't just one educational path that will get you to the corner office. Among Fortune 100 CEOs, some of the most common undergraduate degrees are in engineering, business administration, economics, and accounting. If you're aiming to enter a specific industry like information technology or health care administration, think about focusing in those areas.
Keep in mind that no matter what you major in, you'd be wise to take courses that can increase your financial knowledge. Running a company requires knowing your way around a profit and loss statement, so be sure to learn as much as you can about accounting or economics.
3. Consider graduate studies.
Many chief executives have MBAs or advanced degrees in economics or law. Pursuing higher-level studies can help you develop more in-depth skills and, perhaps more importantly, expand your network of industry contacts. Many programs also offer you the chance to complete internships or even work abroad.
You can go straight into a graduate program after finishing your bachelor's degree, but many aspiring leaders accumulate real-world work experience before pursuing additional education.
Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to prepare for a chief executive role is by getting an MBA from a well-ranked school. Around one-third of Fortune 100 CEOs have MBAs, many from elite institutions like Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.2 Such Ivy League degrees are often highly regarded because of the selective and competitive nature of those programs.
But not all company bosses have such illustrious pedigrees. In fact, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, leader of the number one company on the Fortune 500 list, got his MBA from the University of Tulsa. And among a group of more than 2,000 CEOs across the U.S., only seven percent had an Ivy League degree.3 So you don't necessarily have to go to a top school to end up in the top job.
If you're trying to decide whether a particular MBA program is right for you, consider these questions:
- Does the program offer practical training in organizational behavior and leadership?
- What kinds of internships are available?
- How extensive is the alumni network? Is it concentrated in a particular industry or geographic area?
- How do graduates of the program rate their experience at the school?
4. Start gaining experience.
A CEO position is obviously not an entry-level job. You'll need to start out at a more junior level in the company or industry that interests you and work your way up. Look for a position that presents opportunities for growth. Many companies offer management training programs that can boost your odds of advancement, so be sure to take advantage of available options.
Whatever role you start out in, dedicate yourself to learning as much as you can about your organization and its industry. Work on improving your communication and problem-solving skills. Seek advice from seasoned professionals. Do everything you can to demonstrate your competence and enthusiasm. Most importantly, complete every task to the best of your ability. If you can make a measurable impact on an organization's success, you stand a good chance of being promoted.
As you gain experience and rise in the ranks, aim for management roles that will allow you to run a major business unit. Most CEOs work their way up to high-level positions in operations or finance before they get tapped for the top job.
5. Expand your expertise.
Developing a broad range of skills and expertise is important. CEOs need to understand how all parts of the company interact, so gaining knowledge in more than one functional area (such as sales and finance) can be very beneficial. In fact, one study of management consultants who went on to executive roles found that every additional business function learned equated to about three extra years of work experience.4
Many organizations also look for chief executives with experience at the international level. In a marketplace that is increasingly global, understanding how cultural differences affect business functions is critical for anyone who wants to lead a large company.
In addition, keep in mind that staying in one role for more than two or three years is not the best way to prepare for a CEO job. The typical chief executive gets to the top about 24 years into his or her career, by which point he or she has generally held between eight and 11 positions.3 If you want to advance, you need to keep growing and learning. Look for challenges that will push you out of your comfort zone and fill in the gaps in your skill set.
6. Cultivate connections.
Building a network of contacts both inside and outside the business is essential to your overall success. Few people ascend to the CEO job without first making a name for themselves among key stakeholders. While some organizations look for CEO candidates from other companies or industries who bring a new perspective, many tend to promote from within.
So focus on developing relationships with customers, suppliers, industry influencers, regulators, other CEOs, and members of the board. Attend industry conferences or enroll in executive education programs. Try to go beyond superficial interactions and really connect with people. Having an extensive, high-caliber network will not only help you get on the short list of CEO candidates, it will also give you more resources to draw upon when you do reach the top job.
7. Join a board of directors.
Many executives serve as unpaid board members of nonprofit groups before taking the reins of a company as CEO. This is an excellent way to learn about board dynamics and acquire valuable experience in setting strategies, overseeing operations, and helping an organization grow. You also get the chance to rub shoulders with other business professionals and expand your personal network. It can be time-consuming (since, in most cases, board members must commit to serve for at least a year), but it can also give you unparalleled insight into the challenges of being a CEO.
8. Step up.
Volunteer to lead unpopular projects that no one else is willing to take on. One of the best ways to showcase your leadership qualities is by finding a way through an issue like a bankruptcy or an underperforming product. Such projects can be great chances to show that you know how to evaluate a situation, make decisions, and solve problems. Many leaders accelerate their careers by embracing opportunities even when they don't necessarily feel prepared for the challenges.
Also, remember that senior managers are somewhat insulated from the fallout of an ineffective strategy or poor decision, but the buck stops with the CEO. To prepare for such pressure, take ownership of high-profile initiatives and demonstrate that you can take personal responsibility for their success. You want to show that you are willing to stand by your work and be accountable.
9. Be bold—and don't be afraid to fail.
Chief executives constantly encounter challenges that have no prescribed solution. You will need to act decisively even when you have ambiguous or incomplete information. That doesn't mean charging ahead without careful consideration, but it does mean being ready to move forward with conviction so that you don't stall an organization's progress.
Contrary to what you might expect, not all of those who rise to the top do so without stumbling. In fact, on their journey to the CEO seat, about 45 percent of candidates for the top job committed a major blunder that was costly to them or their business.3 But successful leaders distinguish themselves by how they handle such failures. If you can treat setbacks as opportunities to adapt, learn, and grow, you can show your executive potential.
Characteristics of Successful CEOs
Do you have what it takes to make it to the top? In a survey of 800 executives around the globe, more than three-quarters of respondents said that a candidate's past performance was not the best predictor of their success in a new role. In fact, 87 percent of executives believed that personal traits were a better indicator of leadership potential.5
Here are some common characteristics that successful CEOs typically exhibit:
- They are driven, focused, and ambitious.
- They are calm under pressure.
- They are excellent communicators and negotiators.
- They inspire respect.
- They can make important decisions and hard choices.
- They can develop a cohesive strategic plan.
- They can rally others to their vision.
3 Tips for Success in a CEO Job Interview
Even senior-level candidates with the right combination of education and experience can stumble when it comes time to interview for a position as a CEO. Following these three tips can help you impress a hiring panel and boost your odds of attaining the top job:
1. Be likeable.
Your ability to get along with people can make a significant difference when it comes to landing a job as a CEO. One study found that candidates with stronger interpersonal skills are more likely to get hired for executive positions.6 The more you can connect with the interviewers, the better your chances of landing the role.
2. Don't overuse "I."
When it comes time to discuss past achievements, be clear about what you've accomplished, but remember that you didn't get there alone. Companies succeed through the collective efforts of groups of people working together. Highlighting how you and your team produced results will have more of a positive impact on an interview board than overemphasizing your own prowess.
3. Keep your cool.
The interview board may try to test your ability to handle stressful or sensitive situations, but no matter how tough or awkward the questions, it's important not to get irritated or flustered. A company leader needs to be able to keep a clear head in high-pressure situations and communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences. You need to show that you can handle the hot seat.
Aim for the Top
Since you know how to become a CEO now, you can start thinking about the educational path that will help you achieve your goals. Why not begin with some focused training from a school that makes it convenient to earn the credential you want? A broad range of programs are available to help you launch your career or advance your ambitions. Discover great options in your area by putting your zip code into the search tool below!
1 Harvard Business Review, "How CEOs Without College Degrees Got to the Top," website last visited on October 28, 2019.
2 U.S. News & World Report, "Map: Where Fortune 100 CEOs Earned MBAs," website last visited on October 28, 2019.
3 The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People Into World-Class Leaders by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell.
4 LinkedIn, "How to Become An Executive," website last visited on October 28, 2019.
5 Egon Zehnder, "International Executive Panel: who will lead?," website last visited on October 28, 2019.
6 Columbia Business School Research Paper Series, "Are CEOs Different? Characteristics of Top Managers," website last visited on October 28, 2019.