The world’s highest peak is Mount Everest, majestically rising almost 30,000 feet above sea level. Many mountaineers spend years gaining the experience, skills, physical fitness, and mental toughness needed to make the trek, yet few make it to the top. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the mountain’s summit in 1953, only about 5,000 people have followed.
The challenges of the climb compound the closer one gets to the top. The trail from the final camp to the summit is dubbed “the death zone,” where thin air and brutal weather combine to create confusion and hallucinations, as well as a host of health-related challenges. For the select few who make it through, however, a magic moment awaits where there are no more upward steps to take. They find themselves, literally, on top of the world.
Since the 1950s, fewer people have made it to the top of Fortune 500 companies than have scaled Mount Everest. When Mary Barra joined General Motors as an 18-year-old engineering intern, the odds that she would someday sit in the CEO chair were far less than one in 750,000 (the number of General Motors employees at the time). It was more probable that she would be struck by lightning! Yet today, she’s more than nine years into her tenure as the first woman ever to lead a US automaker.
Barra’s journey to the top, like that of most Fortune 500 CEOs, involved continuous learning and having a record of success across a wide variety of increasingly senior positions. During her career, she honed many vital leadership traits, such as strategic thinking, relationship building, risk taking, authenticity, humility, objectivity, resilience, stamina, and decisiveness. A few years before becoming CEO, however, she suddenly felt sidetracked as she was unexpectedly shifted to HR into the type of soft job that has long embodied where talented women finish out their careers.
As Barra learned, any leader two or three years out from the top job faces a final ascent as fraught with challenges as the one on Mount Everest. Some executives find themselves sidelined. Others become part of the top team only to discover that they have no desire to step up further. Still others become disoriented, lose their balance, and fall. For some, external factors interrupt the path to becoming the CEO—at least at their company. As Brad Smith, former CEO of Intuit, recounts, “When I stepped down, the conditions were such that Sasan Goodarzi was best suited for our next chapter. The other three candidates were ready to be CEOs in different environments, and they all went on to lead other companies.”
While there is no way to guarantee success, if you’re a senior executive who aspires to the top job, the following advice will greatly increase your odds:
Take a gut check of your motivations and expectations.
Elevate your perspective while boldly delivering results.
Round out your profile with humility.
Understand the CEO selection process and put your best foot forward.
Take a gut check of your motivations and expectations
“Everest is not about summiting, adding to your image, the conquest of nature or of other humans,” experienced mountaineers share in a guide to climbing Mount Everest.2 To climbers driven by such motivations, they say, “You will become a prisoner of other people’s judgment in your desire of proving self-worth. You will climb blinded and feel an immense failure if not summiting. Or if successful—go home, celebrate your triumph and fame, and when the lights eventually are turned towards someone else, end up empty.”
Former Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) CEO Michael Fisher makes a similar point when it comes to leading organizations. “If the main reason you want to have the CEO title is for ego, that’s unlikely to be a sustainable motivator over time.” Expanding on Fisher’s point, the following table shows a short list of motivations and expectations that provide a good litmus test for whether you’re well suited for the top role.
If your mindsets on the topics lean toward those in the unsustainable column, it’s unlikely that you’ll find the CEO job worth the effort. The ego satisfaction you’ll get from landing the top job will soon provide small comfort in the face of mounting demands. You’ll be spinning more plates far more intensively than you have in any other role as you set direction, align the organization, mobilize leaders, engage the board, connect with stakeholders, and manage your personal effectiveness.
Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom, who’s spent his career researching CEOs, describes the reality he’s observed: “It’s frankly a horrible job. I wouldn’t want it. Being a CEO of a big company is a hundred-hour-a-week job. It consumes your life. It consumes your weekend. It’s super stressful. Sure, there’re enormous perks, but it’s also all encompassing.”
Reinforcing the point, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes the job as “24/7.” His late mentor Bill Campbell, who had been a CEO three times and was an influential coach to several technology industry leaders, would often remind him, “No one has ever lived to outwork the job. It will always be bigger than you.” Many CEOs secretly agree that the best job in the world is actually the one right below the CEO. There the spotlight burns less brightly, yet the opportunities to make a difference are great, as are the rewards.
Without the right motivations and expectations, not only will you find that the effort required to be CEO outweighs any personal gain, but you will also be less likely to succeed. As CCHMC’s Fisher puts it, “If you’re not driven by a deep care and concern for the institution you have the privilege to lead and for its stakeholders, then when the going gets tough, you won’t step up to the challenge.”
For these reasons, we encourage any executive setting their sights on the summit to do some genuine soul searching before deciding to make the final ascent. If it’s all about you, or if you’re doing it out of a sense of obligation, know that the top will be a hostile, extreme place where no one will rescue you during times of trouble.
If, however, you’re driven by a passion and vision for how you can help others climb further and faster to achieve new heights collectively, you’ll more than likely end up on a deeply fulfilling adventure. Former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault captures this winning mindset, “If you want to lead, you have to be committed to serve.”
Last, when taking a gut check of your motivations and expectations, don’t forgot to consider the impact that the new job will have on your family members. “The role affects your family far more than you think it will,” reflects Aon’s CEO, Greg Case. Former General Mills CEO Ken Powell explains, “You’re in the newspaper; they’re publishing your salary or talking about when you screw things up. It can be hard on kids. That part is unpleasant.” His advice to aspiring CEOs is simple: “You need to talk it over with your partner if you have one. In my case, my wife and I agreed, ‘OK, this is just part of the pluses and minuses.’” Indeed, virtually every successful CEO we’ve worked with has shared that having a spouse or partner who understands and is supportive of the nature of the job is essential.
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