Ask an Expert: How Do I Become a CEO?

By Sally Blount and Paul Leinwand
October 28, 2021

We asked Sally Blount, a Fortune 500 board member and former dean at the Kellogg School of Management, and Paul Leinwand, principal at PwC Strategy and author, to respond to a question about how to stand out in order to move into an executive / C-suite position.

 

There are three breakthrough pathways that the most successful C-suite residents tend to leverage.

  • Being a “fixer.” From an early age, people with this type of capability naturally see how things in their organization could run better. They instinctively rethink systems, processes, and reporting structures — even before they have the authority to change anything.
  • Being a “relationship maven.” Leaders with this skill have a natural curiosity about other people, which starts early in their careers. As they progress in their careers and their network of “friends” grows, these leaders instinctively start bringing different people together in rooms to pull off deals and collaborations that get bigger over time — yielding results others have a difficult time replicating.
  • Being a “passion player.” These leaders believe that accomplishing something significant is what matters, and they use that belief to recruit and motivate others to their cause. They are often deep experts in a particular area, bringing tremendous business knowledge and/or strategic thinking to a particular topic, that helps make the story behind their passion compelling to a broad array of stakeholders.

 

I am a 25-year-old woman just starting out in veterinary marketing. During my first three years in the workforce, I worked as a certified technician in veterinary medicine, but recently, I decided I wanted more out of my career. While working, I went back to school to complete my bachelor’s degree in business. During this time, I also approached my boss and asked if she could help me gain more experience on the business side of the industry.

After assisting my hospital with our marketing efforts for about a year, and securing my degree, I was offered a marketing development position. In my new role, I will be working with several hospitals located in the western U.S. on their marketing execution plans.

I’ve worked really hard to get here, but this is also going to be a big job transition. I will be meeting with more senior and executive-level employees in this role. I want to use this position as a starting point to grow and advance into an executive / C-suite position one day. I am seeking any advice that you may have on ways to make myself stand out among the competition in this lower-level position. 

Thanks for your guidance,

Future CEO

 

We asked Sally Blount, a Fortune 500 board member and former dean at the Kellogg School of Management, and Paul Leinwand, principal at PwC Strategy and author, to respond.

 

Dear Future CEO,

You are thinking through a topic we hear about a lot. In fact, in our work and teaching, we often meet young professionals and MBA students who tell us “I want to be a CEO.” The exact source of their ambition may not always be clear, but their “I want to lead” mindset certainly is.

When we dig deeper, we find that what many of these aspirants want most is to have impact. They hunger to do work that makes a genuine, tangible difference in the world. Many worry that most jobs (and the ones they may be in today) won’t allow them to do so. They see business, then, as a vehicle for impact, and the CEO or some other executive role, as a destination for creating real change.

Two Important Questions

If this longing for impact sounds familiar to you, and if you’re someone who aspires to lead an organization in order to do that, let’s talk about what it takes. Specifically, what does it take to lead thousands of employees and be outstanding at it?

First, do you have the motivation and focus required for a journey that will likely take decades?

In 2020, the average age of new CEOs and CFOs at the U.S.’s biggest companies was 54 and 48 years old, respectively. Those numbers have increased by five years over the last decade, according to The Wall Street Journal. As the global business environment grows more complex, boards are looking to leaders with more, not less, experience under their belts. Regardless of how long it may take you, motivation and focus will be required to get you through a wide set of challenges, and ultimately, the knowledge that some key factors will be out of your control.

Second, do you have the potential to become a high-impact leader? Do you have the skills that will both distinguish you among your peers and enable you to lead at scale?

Throughout our careers, we’ve had the opportunity to observe many C-suite leaders at work. Drawing from our combined experiences, we’ve found ourselves asking: Who do we know who has outsized impact, and how do they lead? That led us to identify three breakthrough pathways that we would argue the most successful C-suite residents tend to leverage.

We encourage you to reflect: In which pathway might your potential leadership impact lie?

1) The Organizational Architect

These leaders know how to build teams and organizational structures, systems, and processes that deliver outstanding results. Creating the right organizational infrastructure is what allows companies to excel in their markets, from innovating new products to creating meaningful customer relationships to building highly digitized supply chains.  These leaders understand the fundamental reality that building real advantage is not just about winning today, but building an engine for growth that will last long into the future.

Executives who can “architect” how their organizations deliver are the same people who can reimagine markets and attract exceptional talent — talent drawn by the opportunity to participate in something that will have an impact. These leaders know how to assemble strong players across business functions and give those people the direction, resources, and freedom they need to deliver on challenging goals.

From an early age, people with this type of capability naturally see how things in their organization could run better. They instinctively rethink systems, processes, and reporting structures — even before they have the authority to change anything. And when they do get the opportunity to fix something or build something new, they don’t just copy what their organization already does or what competitors are doing. They step back to rethink the problem they are trying to solve and use outside-in thinking to create new ways of working (often supported by data and evidence) that improve business outcomes.

Future CEO, if this is your potential pathway, you’ll have a “fixer” mindset and want to find and watch the leaders around you who have that same skill. Watch how they lead people and how they navigate and deliver on making operations stronger in your organization. Similarly, when you are tapped to start leading teams of people, your goal is to learn how to motivate people with diverse skills to do not just what’s asked, but to seek deeper solutions that yield true advantage over time. Identifying solutions, clearly explaining your ideas, aligning your team members, and encouraging them to problem-solve in new ways is what leadership is all about. Persuading and motivating others to exceed expectations is a critical skill for this type of leader and one you will want to develop.

2) The Relationship Maven

These leaders are all about cultivating relationships and helping other people flourish. They form genuine relationships with a diverse group of executives, internally and externally, seemingly without effort. People naturally like them — and not just because they’re likeable. Instead they tend to have an infectious earnestness that evokes trust and good will, whether it be with customers, partners, suppliers, or good friends. As they progress in their careers and their network of “friends” grows, these leaders instinctively start bringing different people together in rooms to pull off deals and collaborations that get bigger over time — yielding results others have a difficult time replicating.

Leaders with this skill have a natural curiosity about other people, which starts early in their careers. They spark up good conversations every day by asking questions of the many people they meet and listening carefully to the answers. They keep in touch with the people they find most interesting and nurture what becomes a diverse array of connections over time. It’s important to distinguish leaders who are skilled at relationship building from those who create value because of the broad networks they command. The type of leader we highlight here does not just have a lot of contacts, but they have a lot of deep ones, based on who they are, not their job status.

Future CEO, if this is your potential pathway, people have probably told you that you’re a “people person.” Perhaps, your family members rib you about making friends with anyone. The key point is to build on this skill by taking careful notes about the interesting people you meet, and finding ways to add value reciprocally over time. That continued investment can result in an incredibly rich network of contacts as you gather hundreds of people into your orbit — each of whom will take your call, offer a candid opinion or make a connection, and, someday, agree to work in heroic ways on a special project on your behalf.

3) The Passion Player

These leaders are all about purpose. They start with, “What are we going to accomplish — and why?” That might mean solving the large-scale issues others haven’t, such as global social problems, or bringing new solutions to big existing challenges, like high-impact medical technologies. And while some of these leaders evangelize a self-generated vision, others find their motivation in bringing someone else’s idea to life or in igniting energy in a vibrant mission-based organization. The exact source of their passion is not what distinguishes them — it’s their infectious energy and compelling conversation about “why we are here” that draws people toward them.

These leaders believe that accomplishing something significant is what matters, and they use that belief to recruit and motivate others to their cause. They are often deep experts in a particular area, bringing tremendous business knowledge and/or strategic thinking to a particular topic, that helps make the story behind their passion compelling to a broad array of stakeholders. Given their deep sense of purpose, passion players often take risks than other leaders might not, perhaps starting a new venture or forging a unique high-stakes path within an existing organization.

Future CEO, like the other pathways, not everyone has the drive and skills needed to lead in this way. But if you hunger for purpose — perhaps more than you seek titles, money or other things  — and you enjoy pulling others into conversations about meaning, this might be your pathway. If so, you’ll want to start identifying purpose-driven leaders around you and in the popular press, reading their books, and watching their speeches and videos. Notice how they frame problems and tell stories. Start practicing some of their communications patterns in your own conversations to see what reactions you can evoke in people. Also, become more conscious of who in your network feels as strongly about purpose as you do. Reach out, take advantage of opportunities to help them give voice to their dreams and aspirations. See if you can become known as someone who helps others “think big,” and recognize that we all have, independent of level or position, great opportunity to infuse purpose into everything we do.

What Does This Mean For You?

Given these three potential pathways for leading people at scale — which one might be a potential fit for you? In which direction might your natural abilities be developed toward leadership impact? While identifying and working on potential weaknesses that could derail a career is always important, leadership that compels others to follow, especially at scale, draws strength from strength — it taps into the leader’s innate capabilities. The goal is to find where that potential might lay in you.

One point before we close: While aspiring to be a CEO or C-suite leader is a worthy goal, it isn’t wise to work only for a destination, especially one that is both elusive and may not be fully within your control.  The best leaders we know are people who have created impact wherever they went, starting small and gradually getting bigger. Then, somewhere along the way, they got noticed for their commitment to excellence and impact — not their ambition. And while we really appreciate this question, please know that organizations are counting on all of us to have impact today. There are simply too many challenges that need leadership at all levels.

 

 

Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

 

 

 

 

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