The fastest way to becoming a CEO

Leadership + Management


How to become a CEO? Attend elite MBA programmes, land high-powered jobs right out of school at prestigious firms, and climb the ladder straight to the top, carefully avoiding risky moves. That at least is the common perception. But research shows a completely different picture. Elena Lytkina Botelho and Kim Rosenkotter Powell from ghSmart, a leadership advisory firm, conducted a 10-year study, which they call the CEO Genome Project. They  assembled data of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 in-depth to analyse who gets to the top and how. They then took a  look at “CEO sprinters” - those who reached the CEO role faster than the average of 24 years from their first job.

Their findings are published in the Harvard Business Review and are striking: Sprinters accelerate to the top by making bold career moves over the course of their career. 97 per cent undertook at least one of these catapult experiences and close to 50 per cent had at least two. Only 24 per cent, though, had elite MBAs.

More than 60 per cent of sprinters took a smaller role at some point in their career. They may have started something new within their company (by launching a new product or division, for example), moved to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities, or started their own business. In each case, they used the opportunity to build something from the ground up and make an impact.

More than one-third of sprinters catapulted to the top by making “the big leap,” often in the first decade of their careers. These executives threw caution to the wind and said yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they’ve done previously and they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead.

One way to prove to be CEO material is by inheriting a big mess, say the authors. It could be an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a bankruptcy - any major problem for the business that needs to be fixed fast. More than 30 per cent of the sprinters led their teams through a big mess.

Conclusion: Accelerating your career through these catapults doesn’t require an elite MBA or a select mix of inborn traits, but it does require a willingness to make lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves.



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