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Ask an Expert: How Do I Become a CEO?



Dear Ascend,

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.

Read More at https://hbr.org/2021/02/ask-an-expert-how-do-i-become-a-ceo

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