So you want to be a CEO?

by | Feb 19

11 min read

What does a CEO role entail today, against a backdrop of uncertain markets and challenging economic times? Then, even if you’re sure of the specs on paper, how will your unique personality traits enable you to thrive in this, the working world’s most demanding of positions?

A CEO, or chief executive officer, is generally considered to be the top-ranking individual at a firm. While CEO is a globally acknowledged position, in some territories the role may be referred to as managing director, or even president.

Once in this position, you will be at the beck and call of the board of directors of the specific company to which you have been hired, so joining a company where the board holds many friendly faces is likely to make your work that much easier, and more pleasant, to accomplish.

Your path to the role

Some say it pays to begin with an engineering degree and, after gaining some reputable on-the-ground experience, to study further for an MBA. Yes, both education and experience will stand in your stead here – but chance and circumstance can also play their role in your securing a CEO job.

Didn’t go to Harvard, or the top university in your immediate district? Don’t stress. The Malcolm Gladwell book Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2015), shares extensive research and examples of the David-and-Goliath variety, in which those individuals with similar reading, writing and mathematics scores to their peers – but who attended more lowly-ranked schools, universities and technical colleges ¬– went on to do quite a bit better in life.

Gladwell’s stance is that it allows those hailing from lower-ranked schools to remain poised, confident and fulfilled, versus their peers at a high-ranking school where even the brain boxes and/or arch socialites may battle to make in-roads, or feel heard and appreciated.

Experts at the Centre for Creative Leadership, however, (CCL) admit there is no unique, guaranteed, clearly defined path to becoming the CEO of a big firm. Because this role is a completely different thing to any other leadership position you may have encountered over the course of your career, it can be extremely helpful to take on board the CCL’s 4 key areas of growth as you embark on this journey.

While you will obviously do an extensive amount of reading before tackling such a role, of reputable and high-integrity business platforms such as a Forbes and Harvard Business Review, the four agreed keys for CEO readiness can be accessed below.

They are:
• Experience: you will be poised to take responsibility for profit and loss; your experience outside of your home territory will be duly noted and be viewed as a bonus; and you’ll be able to function highly in more than one business area, with finance and operations ranking highly among fellow board members.

• Personality: you are a good fit for the position ¬– your beliefs and values will gel with those of your board members; you’ll be likeable (friendly to sit next to on a long-haul flight); your intelligence and public speaking skills will shine through; and your integrity and openness to new ideas will delight your company’s high-performing teams.

• Network: you will have influence outside your immediate surroundings, and you’ll leverage these key individuals – across media, government and banking, as three key examples – to solve problems and encourage value-bringing interactions.

• Relationship: you will maintain positive relationships both within, and outside, the firm; inspire confidence among employees, fellow executives and external stakeholders; and generally handle all your personal relationships in an enviably sorted manner.

Breaking in…

While it can prove tough for insiders to infiltrate a big, stock exchange-listed firm – your experience at a global consulting firm such as McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, PwC or KPMG in your youth (accolades to those who spot this on your CV!) will set you ahead when it comes to aspirational career jumps.

Another nudge in the right direction could be that you’re heading up a listed firm’s most impactful operational team – and making positive waves that are resounding in the marketplace.

Just avoid a situation where your focus appears to need to narrow to accomplish the demands of such a role, thereby limiting your networking clout and ability to keep in touch with other trusted individuals across the firm ¬– and even within the marketplace at large.

Mind on the money

Another grand option is taking the financial route to CEO – although, it is generally considered a secondary alternative, as opposed to engineering and an MBA, for example. If you’re in the 32 percent minority taking this path, be mindful of the limitations of viewing an entire organisation from a figures perspective – as you would be inclined to do if you were previously a CFO.

Benefits of travelling this route to CEO? You can converse easily on financial matters, and convince shareholders of your standpoint; and your extensive business experience will rest easy with most members of the board.

Critical personality traits

If you could weigh up career track record versus individual characteristics, it’s clear that personality traits emerge strongly among successful CEOs. This is generally referred to as the “gift of the gab” ¬– we all know that individual for whom nothing seems to slows them down, or get them down, and where their personal drive and ambition keeps shining through whatever the weather.

At this point, it’s worth asking yourself: do I communicate well, and effectively? Am I aware of my failings, and prepared to up my game through coaching, and/or mentoring, if it becomes clear this is essential to my future success?

Other questions to ask include: Can I switch from performer (at a conference), to listener (back in the head office)? Being in touch with the gossip that’s doing the rounds at the most junior level of the business is likely only going to be possible when you’re well liked, and juniors feel comfortable opening up to you about their fears and concerns.

Further, the role of CEO requires a social being, more than an academic. Can you – and do you – thrive on building connections; and maintaining them? It takes time and care, but those who do this go that much further on the job ladder.

A shifting landscape

As all hell breaks loose around us – from wars and pandemics, to volatile financial markets and unfathomable inflation rates¬ – so the CEO of an organisation is tasked with soothing
all the ruffled feathers they encounter.

While entrepreneurs may be permitted to breeze into a meeting, cause an about turn in every attendee’s thinking, and leave in a rush for their next appointment, so the CEO must arrive, soothe, and stay the distance so that all environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns are addressed to the satisfaction of each stakeholder present.

There’s no skirting around issues for a CEO. But, on tackling the most difficult ones, this individual needs to be able to reassure, encourage and praise – despite any personal misgivings he or she may be harbouring.

Taking ESG seriously

The ESG space requires a considerable amount more attention from CEOs than is currently the case, with the 2022 KPMG CEO Outlook revealing that only eight percent of South African CEOs have invested money in the adoption of a more transparent approach when it comes to ESG reporting.

After canvassing at least 50 C-suite executives, from listed companies across the insurance, banking, infrastructure and consumer sectors, this statistic (eight percent) supports the notion that ESG is not a top operational priority.

Globally, however, a greater comprehension of what ESG reporting entails, and the way in which it can benefit a company’s bottom line (i.e. by attracting investors), has been filtering through. In fact, the KPMG survey shows that at least 45 percent of CEOs globally are in agreement that such programmes will improve their companies’ financial performance, versus only 37 percent holding this opinion the previous year.

Further, CEOs who have done their research in this niche, reveal that when a company embraces ESG guidelines – they are also poised to secure the best talent, and keep employee values on track with UN sustainability guidelines.

Research goals

An insightful paper entitled CEOs for the Future, When the Future Is Now (Korn Ferry), highlights five pointers that will see the best-in-class CEOs rising above the chaos as they lead their companies into the unchartered waters of 2023 – and beyond.

These pointers involve:
• remaining radically human, and leading at all times from the heart;
• embracing change, and sharing its joys without causing alarm;
• not holding back when it comes to advocating for important health, climate and societal change;
• harnessing the energy in your organisation, so that all staff or team members are able to operate with a unique sense of purpose;
• participating effectively in your leadership ecosystem of board members and shareholders, such that you represent a multitude of view points in a fair, positive and egalitarian way.

Want to be a CEO sprinter? Here’s how to take a stab at it

A 10-year study called the “CEO Genome Project”, in which 17 000 C-suite executives gladly came under the spotlight, reveals just who reached the CEO role faster than the average time of 24 years from their very first job.

In tandem with Gladwell’s opinion, stated above (See: Path to the role), sprinters don’t generally reach the top due to their picture-perfect pedigree. Instead, it is their brave moves (otherwise referred to as catapults) over the course of their working life, that see them rising up faster than their peers.

Over and above their decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and ability to engage others impactfully, are the three common career catapults of CEO sprinters. Note: up to 97 percent of sprinter CEOs have made a least one brave move from the list below, and 50 percent at least two such moves:

• Step back, to make an impact: remember that doing something like stepping out of the corporate world to scale up a start-up, will allow you to gain many of the skills you need to thrive as a future CEO;
• Take up a big challenge, in unchartered waters: if you’re game for the challenge and your enthusiasm is on point, you’ll learn on the job and soon be thriving at a role like CFO, where your guts in a tough situation – think a merger or acquisition – are likely to bring you plenty of glory; and
• Lead your team through a crisis: by making calm assessments, being decisive when it’s called for, and encouraging everyone involved to keep going despite the headwinds – you’ll be showing your true mettle, just like you would as a general in wartime.

Last thoughts

So let’s just make it clear as you apply from the outside, or express internal interest in a CEO position, that there’s no optimal route to get there – and that women may arrive in their first CEO role 30 percent slower than men (this statistic should certainly not put you off!)

Can you take a calculated risk, think on your feet, speak convincingly in public, charm the investors, breeze through junior staff-member offices and make their day with a few kind words? These traits, more than any elite schooling or family name, will ensure your ultimate success in the CEO role.


Fast fact 1: An earnings comparison
• Average CEO salary in South Africa = R1 182 630 per annum
• Average global CEO salary = US$107 679 (R1 943 815) per annum

Fast fact 2: Best performing global CEOs
A Harvard Business Review piece, “The Best Performing CEOs in the World”, shares a list of the CEOs who managed to look beyond achieving short-term goals to earn a pay increase, and instead succeeded in achieving solid results in the medium to long term.

The likes of Jeff Bezos at Amazon; John Martin at Gilead Sciences; John Chambers at Cisco Systems; David Pyott at Allergan; and David Simon at Simon Property Group top this list.

Suffice it to say that’s it’s worth googling these individuals and finding out more about their stories, as you forge ahead with your own plans to secure a CEO job.

Fast fact 3: Quick quiz – How to assess whether the CEO role’s for you
• You’re able motivate and inspire your employees;
• You’re able to make astute financial decisions;
• You can communicate a vision and a strategy, and are charismatic in your public speaking;
• Your ethics and integrity shine through in your corporate decision-making.

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