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 the 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.
- CEO is the highest-ranking job title in an organization.
- The core responsibility of a CEO is to make a company as valuable as possible.
- There are a few common ways a person might become a CEO such as founding their own company, working through the ranks, or gaining decades of education and expertise.
- CEOs need top-tier leadership skills in order to succeed. This must become a lifelong focus for professionals with ambitions of becoming a CEO.
What Is a CEO?
A CEO (chief executive officer) is the top position at a company that requires many years of education and experience in order to succeed. The top characteristics CEOs grow throughout their careers are strong leadership skills, interpersonal skills, analytical and critical thinking skills, mental resilience, and business savviness.
As the most critical role in a business, CEOs are responsible for maximizing the company’s value and success. Since it is the organization’s top C-suite position, all other chief executives report to them. The CEO’s job mainly focuses on the business’s operations and casting the company’s vision for the future. Ultimately, they are accountable for the organization’s success or failure.
What Does a CEO Do?
The duties of a CEO depend largely on the size of the company they work for. However, there are some common responsibilities such as:
- Keeping profitability on track
- Being responsible for the management of the company’s structure
- Driving agendas
- Creating and enacting strategies
- Working with the board of directors (board members can overrule a CEO when they feel it’s necessary)
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.
How to Become a CEO: 5 Steps to Follow
1. Get the Right Education
Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.Jim Rohn
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, which is a crucial first step.
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 in management 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 and opportunities 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.
How to become a CEO of a company by continuing 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
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.
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
It’s important to remember there’s no substitute for hard work and rising up the ranks like many of the management 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 upward in your career path toward executive positions, you’ll gain experience in decision-making 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.
You don’t have to gain management experience only through the organizations you want to lead, though. Many entrepreneurs gain experience working with other companies in similar industries before founding their own businesses.
Lucy Liu, the co-founder of Airwallex, 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. Develop Your Character and Leadership Abilities
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.Ray Kroc
A business will only go as far as its leader does. Leadership expert John Maxwell calls this the Law of the Lid. With this in mind, leaders should develop the management and 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 organization
- Using communication skills to ensure smooth operations
- Being proficient at problem-solving skills
- Having a love of learning
- Staying humble
- Keeping a positive attitude
- Inspiring, motivating, encouraging, and supporting those on your team
- Building teams and communities
Dick and Maurice McDonald, who started the McDonald’s restaurants, provided a quality product that people wanted and essentially created 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 organization, 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.
4. Begin Crafting and Refining Your Vision
Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you.Tony Hsieh
A CEO’s top priority is maximizing the company’s value. This is done by establishing and working toward a purpose-driven vision that creates positive change in the world. As a successful CEO, you must craft and refine your vision to reach that next step. This vision should guide the company and be something that is constantly communicated to every employee since they each play a role in achieving it. Without a clear, distinct vision, the company will inevitably fail.
How to become CEO by creating and refining 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
Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks left their respective companies (some unwillingly) only for the businesses to falter in their absences. These examples show the value of a visionary leader who sees the big picture. Without their leadership, each company ran without a purpose or destination in mind.
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 in management 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.
Getting the right people on your team with the right personality traits is a critical step 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 to check their accountability levels
- 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
When Bob Chapman became the chief executive of Barry-Wehmiller, he quickly learned that he needed to make his company a place where 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.”
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’s office. First and foremost, you need to know why you want to become a CEO. Do you want the position because of the power, professional prestige, and money involved? Or do you want it because you want opportunities to serve others and help them reach their full potential no matter the organizations they work for?
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, finding the transition easier since others will have already bought into you as a leader.
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