Some people are made CEO at 28, some at 58. And some never become CEOs. If you don’t want to take the risk and want to know how to become a CEO fast, read on.
It is a common misconception that younger CEOs come from elite families where they are able to attend prestigious MBA programmes, land high-powered jobs right out of school, and climb the ladder straight to the top, carefully avoiding risky moves.
But a recent study by Harvard Business Review (HBR) says otherwise. Its data paints a completely different picture.
HBR conducted a 10-year study, called the CEO Genome Project. They assembled a data set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 of them in-depth to analyse who got to the top and how.
They then took a closer look at “CEO sprinters” — those who reached the CEO role faster than the average of 24 years from their first job.
This what was they found.
How to become a CEO fast: the bolder the better
This was their striking finding: Sprinters did not accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree.
They did it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapulted them to the top.
HBR found three types of career catapults were most common among the sprinters.
Out of the sprinters, 97% of them undertook at least one of these catapult experiences. Close to 50% had at least two.
How to become a CEO fast: The three career catapults
Through these career catapults, executives could build the specific behaviours that made them successful CEOs — which includes decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact.
In fact, these catapults are so powerful that even people in the study who never aspired to become CEO ultimately landed the position when they pursued one or more of these strategies.
How to become a CEO fast: Catapult #1
Don’t be afraid to take on a smaller role.
More than 60% of sprinters were found to have taken a smaller role at some point in their career.
It could have either been through starting something new within the company, or moving to a smaller company to take on more responsibilities, OR to start a business.
In one of their case studies, ‘James’ was hired in a strategy and business development role inside a multibillion-dollar marketing and communications business in his late twenties.
There, he was offered the chance to build out one of the new businesses.
Though it felt like a demotion, (or at best a lateral move), he took it. “It was zero revenue when I stepped in, and we built that business to $250 million,” he says.
By building a new business from scratch, he picked up essential management skills, such as running a profit and loss, managing a budget, and setting a strategic vision — all critical prerequisites to becoming a CEO.
Over 90% of the CEOs in the study had general management experience. Thirteen years later, he found himself the CEO of a US$1.5 billion education and training business.
How to become a CEO fast: Catapult #2
Take the big leap.
Becoming a CEO takes grit. More than one-third of sprinters catapulted to the top by making “the big leap”. This is often done in the first decade of their careers. These executives said yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they had done previously. Most admitted they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead.
HBR’s advice is to seek out cross-functional projects that touch numerous aspects of the business. For example, get involved in a merger integration or ask your boss for additional responsibilities. The only way to see if you have what it takes to become a CEO is to tackle tough, complex problems.
How to become a CEO fast: Catapult #3
Inherit a big mess.
More than 30% of the sprinters were found to have inherited a big mess and successfully led their teams through it.
It could be in the form of an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a bankruptcy. These are major problems faced by a business and normally takes quite an overhaul.
All of these situations call out for strong leadership. Emerging leaders will use this opportunity to ‘showcase their ability to assess a situation calmly, make decisions under pressure, take calculated risks, rally others around them, and persevere in the face of adversity’, according to HBR.
That’s pretty good training for the CEO position if you ask us.
Think Airasia. Tony Fernandes bought a failed airline (in millions of debt) for RM1. Today, it is Asia’s largest low cost carrier.
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