So, you think you want to be a CEO?

So, you think you want to be a CEO?

A young man came to see me a few weeks ago. “Please help me,” he asked. “I am 24. I want to be a CEO of a significant business in my industry by age 35. How do I do it?” My heart sank. I saw myself sitting there, 30 years earlier. Same ambition. Same desire. I knew so well why he wanted it. But also knew the price he would have to pay to get there.

I asked him to come back two weeks later. Then I agonised about what to say to him. Eventually, I concluded the very best advice I could give him was this. It’s harsh, but true, and from my heart. Maybe there is a message in it for you?

So, you think you want to be the CEO, hey? Tread cautiously. Why do you want to be CEO? It’s a tough gig. I know. I have been CEO of several businesses, and a CEO consistently for the past 20 years, until I took up my current role five years ago. At STW Group, I am not the CEO. I am, with our CFO, our CEO’s key partner. It is an easier life. Believe me.

Here’s the point. The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the better the view. But, the air is very, very thin. Sure, and no doubt, there is a real buzz from being in charge. It can be exhilarating. It comes with a big price though. Of pressure, stress, long hours. They say it’s lonely at the top. And you know what? It bloody well is.

But if you’re hell bent on that path, and want to accelerate towards that first significant CEO gig, here are the Top Three Tips on how to do it. I have been prompted by Brian Tracy’s clarity and wisdom here. He articulates so well what I know in my heart.

  1. Become brilliant at solving problems. Leadership is about solving problems. It comes with the territory. Almost everything I do every day – every email, phone call, meeting – is about a problem. As your career evolves and you get bigger jobs, the problems tend to be the same. Just the amount of money involved increases. So work on your skills as an awesome problem solver. Be a ‘solutions’ focused person. Build your brand as someone who takes on an issue, works out a solution, gets it done, pushes it through. Do that well, and you’ll be given more and bigger problems to solve. And you’ll get promoted faster than others. Promise.
  2. Work harder (and more effectively) than anyone else. Yeah, yeah. I know it is old fashioned and not ‘new age hug each other’ stuff. But face the facts. You want to turbo your career, then put in the hard yards. There are no short cuts. I reckon if you can work two hours more every day than others, then you will rise faster and triumph. Oh, and make sure you are outstandingly productive and effective in that time, getting more of the important things done every day. Become a productivity ninja, and do it for longer than anyone else. As Vidal Sassoon told me, ‘The only place success comes before work is in a dictionary’. So, be prepared for many years of genuinely long, hard, relentless work. Ask any of your CEOs if they made it without doing this? If they did, tell me. I just won’t believe it.
  3. Push yourself to the front. “Continually ask for more responsibility,” Brian Tracy wrote in his great book “Earn What You’re Really Worth“. Terrible title. Awesome book. (If you want to be a CEO fast, read this book). I have a colleague in our Asia business. Young, talented, smart, hard working. When we started working together, I delegated cautiously to him. He did the work. He anticipated. He worked long hours. He solved problems before I needed to get involved. He asked for more rope. We gave it to him. He pushed harder. Worked harder. Focused his energies on problem solving. Started to assume more responsibility without asking. We let him do it. He now is doing a role someone with five years more experience should be doing. But he is doing it. I expect I’ll be reporting to him soon. And that would be fine too.

There are a million other tips. But these are my top three. Become brilliant at solving problems. Work harder (and more effectively) than anyone else. Push yourself to the front. But do tread cautiously. Remember what a banker told me once – “To be successful in this business is like having four hotplates… one is Family, one is Friends, one Health, the other Success. If you want Success, you will only have time to achieve one other hotplate. Which would you choose?” (Re-read that, please. Think about it. Carefully).There are many examples of CEOs who have balance and have ensured all aspects of their lives have prospered. Then there are others who can’t manage it all. Like lard arse me. Go hard, be bold, but please, take care of yourself.

More reading:

How to become the oldest guy in the room
The key skills needed to be a successful CMO
People don’t leave companies – they leave leaders
5 golden rules for a longer and more vibrant career
The most valuable business tip I know
Success at work. What are you chasing?


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