Wanna be CEO? Learn to Sell!

Last Updated Dec 2, 2007 1:59 PM EST

CEOs Who SellBNET's Corner Office blog recently published a recipe for becoming a CEO: How to Get Yourself on the CEO Track. While I'm a huge fan of that blog, with all due respect, that particular entry misses the boat.

Throughout the article, the assumption is made that becoming a CEO is a matter of impressing a board of directors inside an existing organization. But consider for a moment. There are only about 20,000 publicly traded companies in the United States, and they employ millions of people. Just on a simple mathematical basis, the likelihood of becoming a CEO approaches zero.

Executives hoping to become CEOs through "climbing the ladder" are fooling themselves. Ain't gonna happen. They might make SVP or VP, but those are dime-a-dozen titles. Even moving from a SVP position at one firm to a CEO position at another is relatively rare; boards prefer CEOs who already have experience being CEO.

This is not to say that there aren't a million or so CEOs out there. However, most of them are the founders of privately-held companies. And unfortunately for would-be founding CEOs, the advice in the Corner Office blog entry is pretty much useless:
  • Advice #1: "Give yourself a head start. " Wrong. Founding CEOs who worry about their salary and compensation are being silly because entire idea of startup is to increase the value of the company. Sure there's a pot of gold at the end (if you're lucky) but it's all about delayed gratification tomorrow, not lining your pocket today.
  • Advice #2: "Get experience abroad." Mostly wrong. Unless the business model hinges on working with another country, the last thing a CEO needs is a wasted field trip abroad. Founding CEOs must generally focus on the region where they're going to be doing business or their immediately surrounding area from where they'll be drawing the core of their organization.
  • Advice #3: "Workaholics need not apply." Completely wrong. Founding CEOs are all either workaholics or work as long as workaholics, which is the same thing. By the way, I think that this advice (even for wannabe CEOs in public firms) fall into the category of advice that one wishes were true but which isn't. Every CEO I've ever met works long hours and has a cursory home life, at best. It's part of the job; live with it.
  • Advice #4: "Learn to become a team builder." Correct but tautological. Of course CEOs need to build teams. But that's pretty much like saying "learn to manage people if you want to be a manager."
Still want to be CEO? Well, for all practical purposes that means founding your own company. And the key to doing that is simple: LEARN TO SELL.
Because that's what a founding CEO does.

First, you have to sell the idea to your spouse, because being a CEO means that you won't be around much. Then you have to sell the idea to some initial investors. Then you have to sell your offering to your first customers. Then you have to sell the company's bright future to prospective employees. If everything goes well, you may get to sell your company to the public (through an IPO) or to another company (through M&A).

By the way, even those rare CEOs who climbed the corporate ladder (rather than reaching CEO status through building their own firm) are good at selling. At the very least, they sold themselves as CEO material to a board of directors.

Look, I've interviewed hundreds of CEOs. Some were personable; some were assholes. Some were pompous; some were humble. Some were dynamic; some were laid-back. Some were paranoid; some were philosophical. The single characteristic shared by every CEO that I've ever met is that he or she was superlative at selling.

Sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. That's what being a CEO is all about. Everything else is secondary.
  • Geoffrey James

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