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How to Get Yourself on the CEO Track

Despite all the scandals involving chief executive officers, there still seems to be a hunger for insights about how to become one. On the basis of my years of contacts with CEOs, I'd start with these guidelines:

  • Give yourself a head start. You have to have the idea early in your business life, at least in the back of your head. The reason is that you need to obtain a much broader variety of experience than if you are content to follow a single path, say finance, for the bulk of your career. CEOs need to obtain experience in as many vertical silos within the corporation as possible--manufacturing, sales, marketing, finance and the like. They need to be able to speak the language of these warring tribes.
  • Get experience abroad. It's also increasingly clear that to make it to the top, you need to live abroad for a number of years for your company. That's critical, particularly now that U.S. growth is at risk and non-American markets are where companies are growing fastest.
  • Workaholics need not apply. There's also an issue of character development--some people seem to think that if they work 80 to 100 hours a week, as per the recent Fortune cover story they'll be on the right track. But my analysis is that people who work that many hours lack balance in their home lives and a solid home life is essential to making it to the corner office. Executives aspiring to the top also need to demonstrate some commitment to principles and values, ideally by affiliating themselves with a non-profit organization of some sort. People who are unbalanced, meaning they lack a quality personal life and other interests outside the company, are prone to burnout. They also tend not to inspire others to follow them, which is another essential characteristic of successful CEOs.
  • Learn to become a team builder. Lastly, a crucial trait that boards are looking for is the ability to build teams. Back-stabbers and raging egotists are not wanted.
So if you're building your career, ponder these lessons. The chances are that you will spend 20 to 25 years developing yourself before you're ready to be a CEO, probably in the late 40s or early 50s. And you'll probably only have four or five years in the hot seat, much like a baseball manager these days. But you could create huge wealth for yourself and many around you if you play the game just right.
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