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The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study

Some people’s careers take off, while others’ take longer — or even stall out.

Common wisdom says that the former attend elite MBA programs, land high-powered jobs right out of school at prestigious firms, and climb the ladder straight to the top, carefully avoiding risky moves. But our data shows a completely different picture.

We conducted a 10-year study, which we call the CEO Genome Project, in which we assembled a data set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 in-depth to analyze who gets to the top and how. We 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.

We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top. We found that three types of career catapults were most common among the sprinters. Ninety-seven percent of them undertook at least one of these catapult experiences and close to 50% had at least two. (In contrast, only 24% had elite MBAs.)

Through these career catapults, executives build the specific behaviors that set successful CEOs apart — including decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact — and they get noticed for their accomplishments. The catapults are so powerful that even people in our study who never aspired to become CEO ultimately landed the position by pursuing one or more of these strategies.