What does it take to succeed in the top job? In our study of sitting CEOs, executives pointed to six kinds of developmental experiences that they believed had been integral to their success. While not a simple recipe for success, these experiences nonetheless serve as a valuable guide for anyone interested in preparing well for the c-suite and CEO position.
Experience #1— International experience: If you want the top job, be sure to seek out opportunities to go abroad. The CEOs we spoke with felt that working and living internationally gave them the ability to deal better with people, appreciate different cultures, and understand the behavior of customers in other countries. “I would not recommend anyone to succeed me who has not lived and worked oversees,” one executive remarked.
Experience #2—Board Exposure: How do boards work? What are their procedures? What interpersonal dynamics exist? The best way to learn is by actually serving on a board and paying close attention to how it operates. “I have been on the Boards of other companies for the past five years,” a CEO told us. “This has enabled me to see how other companies and boards operate. They are much different than us, but they are equally successful.”
Experience #3—Running A Business: A sure way to prepare for the CEO position is to seek out P&L responsibility. Many CEOs in our study had previously shouldered full P&L responsibility at some point in their careers, so they now felt comfortable operating the levers that drive a company’s performance. Wherever you are in your career, try to “think” like the CEO, considering the impact of your decisions on the entire enterprise and becoming clear on where the profit in your business lies.
Experience #4—Mentoring from a Boss, Advisor or Coach: Seek out an advisor or coach. Many CEOs we spoke with felt well prepared because they had learned by doing and had received feedback from a trusted source. “As a group executive, I worked directly with the Chairman and had many divisions reporting to me,” one CEO said. “Working hand-in-glove with our Chairman taught me much about his role and allowed him to teach me more about mine.” In some cases, you may need an independent, confidential, and experienced perspective. You may want to consider a skilled outside advisor or coach which can be great for helping you to navigate the new role by providing a confidential, objective perspective and feedback unavailable anywhere else.
Experience #5—Functional Experience: Seek out jobs that give you a chance to experience parts of your business you may not have seen directly yet. There’s no substitute for actually knowing your business—all of it. As CEOs told us, functional experience left them with a better understanding of how to relate with people in various roles and with diverse backgrounds.
Experience #6—Use of Leadership Development Resources: Yes, resources like magazine articles and executive development classes do help. One CEO reported reading practically every issue of Harvard Business Review over a twenty-five year period. He found that the ideas the magazine contained gave him a comprehensive framework for thinking about leadership.
Although no single path exists to becoming a member of the c-suite or even a CEO, one thing is certain: Preparing well for the job means stepping up and actively seeking out the experiences you need. Stretch yourself. Challenge yourself. Amp up your game. As one CEO said, “I think an effective CEO will have demonstrated that he or she is sincerely interested in continuous self-development.” We couldn’t agree more.
More on the CEO study can be found in the book Preparing CEOs For Success “What I Wish I Knew”. For more information, visit the CLG Bookstore.
And, for more information about CLG Executive Advisors and the value they bring to CEOs and c-suite executives on issues such as leadership, strategy execution, succession, new leader transition, change implementation, and teamwork among senior teams visit the CLG Executive Advisor section of the website.