Many up and coming leaders aspire to become a CEO. Landing that first CEO job is tough, and I’m often asked for advice on how to do it.
It’s a tricky question. In my own work on CEO searches, it’s unusual to see companies willing take a risk on someone who’s never held the top job. Most boards of directors want a low risk candidate who has already been a CEO.
So how does an aspiring CEO get the first shot at the corner office? I’ve seen it happen in the following ways:
- They get promoted from within. This is by far the most common path. A CEO resigns or is fired, and the company suddenly faces a vacancy. By promoting an internal candidate, the company saves time and money, but more importantly it gets a known quantity who already knows the business.
- They get hired by a trusted colleague. Another common path is winning the first CEO job through a trusted colleague. Maybe it’s an investor who worked with the candidate at a prior business, or a former boss who’s now sitting on the board of the hiring company. Whatever the case, there’s a pre-existing relationship, and a lot of trust, that enables the hiring company to make the necessary leap of faith.
- They make their own job. Entrepreneurially-minded people can appoint themselves CEO by starting their own company. Many well-known entrepreneurs — think of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates — became CEOs of their own companies at times when they would never have been considered for the job anywhere else.
- They join a fixer-upper. A fourth path is through a troubled company where the board is having difficulty filling the CEO job. After they beat their heads against the wall trying to recruit a seasoned executive, they decide to give a first timer a shot. This can be a no-lose deal for the first time CEO. Turning around a bad situation will make her a hero, but failing won’t be a black mark on her record because the company was in deep trouble before she arrived.
What can you do to maximize your chances of becoming a CEO? I suggest a few simple steps:
- Do great work. Without it, nothing else matters.
- Tell people — both within your employer and outside — where you’d like to take your career. If they don’t know about your aspirations, they may never think of you when opportunities arise.
- Develop a mentor — or several mentors — who can give you candid advice. The learning curve is too steep to do it all yourself, so you must learn from the experience of people who came before you.
- Finally, project confidence. If you don’t believe you can handle the top job, no one else will, either.