The CEO Ambition: Running a Business to Make a Difference
Future executives need to build the skills that set successful CEOs apart.
Posted February 1, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Often, when people say they want to become executives, they mean they want to make an impact.
- Becoming the CEO of a large company starts with positioning oneself as a target for headhunters tasked with executive search.
- Career progression is rarely a straight line. Employees have to take an entrepreneurial approach to managing their careers.
The kinds of people who want to become CEOs are the ones who usually do. Entrepreneurship doesn’t appeal to everybody, but whoever catches the bug will only have limited career options for fulfilling their dreams some other way.
When people say they want to become executives, it usually means that what they really want to do is make an impact. Since a business can be a great vehicle for making a difference in the world, running a company is the obvious career choice.
Getting hired as a first-time CEO is a bit of a catch-22. It sounds impossible to acquire (and authentically display) the skills that a top executive needs before actually being one, but that’s kind of the point. Any aspiring leader should be able to engage in this type of creative problem-solving.
Fulfilling one’s dream of becoming the CEO of a large company starts with positioning oneself as a target for headhunters tasked with executive search. The top job is usually an invite-only role, so it’s a good idea for aspiring leaders to be on HR’s radar.
The boundaries that prevent someone from becoming an executive are often psychological. People who start making an impact anywhere are usually seen as leaders—and once someone is seen as a leader, they immediately graduate to becoming one.
Skills of a CEO
There is a large body of literature describing the traits, skills, and abilities of CEOs. Some of these works may also suggest getting involved in certain types of activities to increase one’s chances of becoming one.
For example, Bill George, in his book, Authentic Leadership, argues that a leader should demonstrate a passion for their purpose, establish meaningful, long-term relationships, and have the self-discipline to get results.
Charisma is another trait that’s often seen as required for executives. In a study looking at the characteristics of top managers, researchers Steven N. Kaplan and Morten Sorensen found that, in addition to execution skills and strategic focus, CEOs typically score highly on charisma. They also reported that top chief executives are more extraverted than other employees, in addition to being more optimistic and less risk-averse than other members of the C-suite.
Technically, it’s easy to become a CEO, of course. One can simply file a form and start a company. That’s quite literally the ticket, and that’s how many people start their business careers. But having the job title doesn’t guarantee one will become a leader of any kind, let alone one that will make a tangible impact.
When it comes to aspiring CEOs without experience, the bad news is that large companies will be looking for a safe pair of hands. A Wall Street Journal analysis of S&P 500 companies showed that less than 30 of the 500 CEOs were under 50 years old. Aside from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (who started the company and so never was actually hired for the job), there’s only one executive in the S&P 500 list in their 30s.
Skipping the ladder
In a rapidly changing world, our needs and wants change with the wind. When the market changes, companies change with it, and then the jobs at the company change too. Career progression is rarely a straight line in our knowledge-driven economy.
Employees have to take an entrepreneurial approach to managing their careers, looking for unusual opportunities or finding ways to creatively reframe their work experience. This “career entrepreneurship” also means doing things that may seem illegitimate and contradict social norms about how old, how educated, or how experienced someone should be to get a particular job.
For some people, taking shortcuts and bypassing traditional learning steps is exciting. Most people don’t even recognize these opportunities: When they browse job pages, they hear little voices inside their heads telling them to look elsewhere.
The fastest path to the top
Traditional wisdom says that the way to the top is to avoid risky moves. Attend an elite MBA program, land a high-powered job right out of school—at one of the most prestigious firms—and then climb the ladder all the way up.
But the data from a 10-year study by Nicole Wong, Elena Lytkina Botelho, and Kim Rosenkoetter Powell paints a different—and striking—picture: People who reached the CEO job faster than average—the “sprinters”—didn’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They did it by making bold career moves that catapulted them to the top.
Many CEOs will even take a step back to launch a new product or division or move to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities. Taking a smaller role at some point in one’s career may sound like a step back, but building something from the ground up can have an outsized impact.
Others simply inherit a big mess and make the most of it. It could be an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a bankruptcy—any major problem for the business that needs to be fixed and fixed fast. Messy situations cry out for strong leadership. When faced with a crisis, emerging leaders will showcase their ability to assess a situation calmly, make decisions under pressure, take calculated risks, rally others around them, and persevere in the face of adversity.
Regardless of whether or not someone wants a career in leadership or elsewhere, this type of creativity is not merely useful in today’s world—it has become a requirement. People need to look beyond the obvious in their career plans.
While there is no single path to the CEO seat, future executives need to build and showcase the skills that set successful CEOs apart: decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact. And just as important: They have to get noticed for their accomplishments.
Korotov, Konstantin and Khapova, Svetlana and Arthur, Michael, Career Entrepreneurship (October 25, 2010). Published in Organizational Dynamics 40(2): 127–135. , ESMT Working Paper No. 08-009 (R1), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1436976 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1436976
Kaplan, Steven Neil and Sørensen, Morten, Are CEOS Different? Characteristics of Top Managers (September 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23832, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3038660
The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study by Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, and Nicole Wong. Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-fastest-path-to-the-ceo-job-according-to-a-…
CEOs Under 50 Are a Rare Find in the S&P 500 by Chip Cutter. The Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/ceos-under-50-are-a-rare-find-in-the-s-p-5…