When Mary Barra started her career with General Motors, she was part of the student co-op program. From these humble beginnings, she quickly rose through the ranks, showcasing her expertise and determination. Even with her tremendous skills and first-class work ethic, few could have predicted she would one day become the CEO of GM, yet that’s exactly what she did. She might not have known how to become a CEO the first day she walked through GM’s doors, but she likely knew her positive outlook and penchant for leadership would take her far.
Mary Barra isn’t alone in her story of starting from the bottom and working her way up. Many successful CEOs have taken a similar journey. Bob Iger of Disney, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Lynne Doughtie of KPMG, and Brian Krzanich of Intel are just a few examples of people who climbed the corporate ladder to reach the top of their respective companies.
When you study leaders who rose up in this way, it becomes clear they share a set of skills and talents that propelled them to become influential leaders. As such, if you have a desire to know how to become an executive, you have a template to follow. Think of your steady climb as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop into the CEO you want to be.
- The basic role of a CEO.
- What steps you can work on to become a CEO.
- And what you can start doing today to begin on your path to the executive office.
What Is a CEO?
So, what does a CEO do? A CEO (or chief executive officer) is a company’s top C-suite position—all other chief executives at the business report to them. The CEO’s job mainly focuses on the business’s operations. They’re in charge of keeping profitability on track, managing the company’s structure, driving agendas, creating and enacting strategies, and working with the board of directors. However, it should be noted that when a business has board members, they can overrule a CEO when they feel it’s necessary.
The type of work encompassing the chief executive’s role will largely depend on how big the company is. For example, the CEO of a large corporation will likely be in charge of driving high-level strategies while keeping a firm focus on the company’s overall vision. They’ll also be in charge of delegating lower-level operations to others. On the other hand, a CEO of a small business will likely still need to make decisions on ground-level strategies and projects.
Since CEOs often have the final say on most important company decisions, they are ultimately responsible for their business’s success or failure. Their priority should be to lead it in the best direction for its customers and employees.
How to Become a CEO: 5 Steps to Follow
1. Get the Education You Need
Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.Jim Rohn
As with any professional pursuit in life, education is important for a CEO to have. Most modern CEOs have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in a business-related field. For example, the chief executive of a financial company may have a degree in economics. Many CEOs follow a bachelor’s degree with an MBA from a business school as well.
Entrepreneurs don’t always have to get a degree in business administration to be a CEO, though. They may not have a “traditional” business education, but they often get first-hand knowledge through work experience in a particular industry. No matter what path they take, a CEO doesn’t lead blindly. Their education never stops as they are usually hungry to learn more and grow their knowledge.
Many well-known CEOs have gained a reputation for being voracious readers. Mark Cuban has shared that he reads for three hours a day to learn more about the industries he works in. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates likewise spend big chunks of their time reading as much as they can. For these CEOs, the best business school money can buy are books.
Education is a significant element if you’re learning how to be a CEO. Continuing your education shows you have a growth mindset. A person with this mentality constantly wants to develop themselves and become a better leader.
How to develop a growth mindset and continue your education:
- View every challenge as a learning opportunity.
- Value the process of learning and not just the end result.
- Believe your skills and talents aren’t set in stone and can always be improved.
- Emphasize personal growth over speed.
- Understand that putting forth effort can be more important than inherent talent.
- Stop caring about other people’s approval.
- Try different learning strategies when cultivating new skills.
2. Have the Necessary Experience
You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.Bill Gates
Just because you graduated from Harvard Business School, doesn’t mean you’re ready to become the CEO of a company. It’s important to remember there’s no substitute for hard work and rising up the ranks like many of the CEOs mentioned above did. If anything, it provides you with valuable experience as you learn what it’s like to be toward the bottom of the totem pole.
As you work upwards in your career path toward executive positions, you’ll gain experience making decisions under pressure, managing other people, and creating sound business strategies. It’s your opportunity to get to know the business that you want to run.
Take the case of Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart. McMillon started working for Walmart in 1984, loading up deliveries as part of a summer job. Along the way, he became a buyer and later a manager before taking a position on the company board in 2013. All of this experience proved vital as he took the reins at one of the largest companies in the nation.
You don’t have to gain experience only through the business you want to lead, though. Many entrepreneurs gain experience working with other companies in similar industries before founding their own business.
Before Lucy Liu co-founded Airwallex, she was an investment consultant for China International Capital Corporation and the director of Hong Stong Investment Development Limited. From her experience with these businesses, she became a well-regarded entrepreneur responsible for heading one of today’s most successful female-led unicorn companies.
3. Work on Developing Your Character and Leadership Abilities
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.Ray Kroc
A company can only be as successful as its leader. Leadership expert John Maxwell calls this the Law of the Lid. He provides the example of Dick and Maurice McDonald, who started the McDonald’s restaurants. They provided a quality product that people wanted, essentially creating fast food as we know it. But their vision remained limited, as did their comfort zone for what they wanted to achieve, which basically placed a lid on their potential.
Along came Ray Kroc, who saw that potential and soon took over running the business, lifting the lid in the process. Under his leadership, the success of McDonald’s skyrocketed into what it is today. Kroc believed in no limits, and that standard carried over to the rest of the company. In other words, the leader sets the tone.
A business will only go as far as its leader does. With this in mind, leaders should develop the leadership qualities that will lead to success. Practicing servant leadership can have a profound effect on everyone within the company. As you raise the standard for yourself, others will work hard to meet your expectations.
More ways to be a great leader include:
- Concentrating on the details
- Practicing strategic leadership
- Creating a purpose-driven business
- Being proficient at problem-solving
- Having a love of learning
- Staying humble
- Keeping a positive attitude
- Inspiring, motivating, encouraging, and supporting those on your team
- Building teams and communities
4. Begin Crafting and Refining Your Vision
Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you.Tony Hsieh
What do Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks have in common? All three left their respective companies (some unwillingly) only for the businesses to falter in their absences. The three men all had to return and right the ship, leading each company to further success in the ensuing years.
These examples show the value of a visionary leader who sees the big picture vision for how their businesses could achieve success. Without their leadership, each company ran without a purpose or destination in mind.
To become a successful CEO, you need to craft and refine your vision. You have to see the big picture so you can inspire others to achieve it.
How to create and refine your vision:
- Find issues you’re passionate about and create solutions to problems.
- Create a vision statement that sums up the direction you want to go.
- Take time every day to expand your vision.
- Make prayer and meditation a daily part of your life.
- Stay patient and flexible as your vision becomes a reality.
5. Become a Team-Builder
Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.Steve Jobs
Great CEOs know how to build teams. They do this by identifying people’s potential and growing their skills over time. They also know how to develop and attract great talent. In time, they can create a leadership team that excels.
When Bob Chapman became the chief executive of Barry-Wehmiller, he quickly learned that he needed to make his company a place all employees could develop their skills. As he explained, “I was in the midst of raising six kids, feeling the deep sense of responsibility of making sure they were cared for and had the tools to develop into the people they were meant to be. It dawned on me that I wanted to give that same opportunity to the team members who worked for me.”
Getting the right people on your team with the right personality traits is critical for company success. That means finding A-players who share your vision and believe in nothing short of excellent work. Identifying A-players for your team all starts with the hiring process, but it also continues with growing their skills while they’re with you.
How to find and develop A-players:
- Be clear on what the job is and how it will lead to more growth.
- During interviews, note if the applicant has a vision for their life.
- Ask them about when they’ve failed at work. Do they hold themselves accountable or blame others?
- Provide enough resources for them to be successful in their jobs.
- Teach them how to be effective leaders.
- Invest your time and efforts into their growth.
Before You Become a CEO, Become a Great Leader
Just because someone is a CEO doesn’t mean they’re a great leader. To become a great leader, you need to develop and grow yourself long before ever stepping foot in a CEO office. First and foremost, you need to know why you want to become a CEO. Do you want the position because of the power, prestige, and money involved? Or do you want it because you want to serve others and help them reach their full potential?
Focus on becoming a servant leader. After all, people want to follow someone who goes above and beyond to serve those around them.
As you assume new leadership roles, you’ll be ready to take over the role of CEO. Others will have already bought into you as a leader.
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