Ten tips for becoming a CEO
Business journalist James Ashton shares the tips he’s learnt from CEOs on how to progress in the corporate world
CEOs often display entrepreneurial skill long before they reach the boardroom, running money-making schemes at school or college. Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, arranged dance music nights during his time at Cambridge University, as did John Vincent, co-founder of the healthy fast food chain Leon. Ewan Venters, who went on to run Fortnum & Mason, was just 11 when he began a bakery business that sold bread and cakes.
Early life challenges, such as the death of a parent or bullying, often give CEOs the grit to succeed. The financier Guy Hands shrugged off bullying and dyslexia to sell artwork door to door before joining the investment bank Goldman Sachs and striking it rich with the acquisition of pubs, trains and bookmakers.
Take up a sport
Recruiters looking to hire ambitious graduates often hunt out those who have enjoyed success on the track or in the pool, which highlights a healthy competitive streak and is often more prized than academic excellence. Long before she became known for leading NHS Test and Trace as part of the UK government’s coronavirus response, Baroness (Dido) Harding’s first love was horse racing. David Sleath, CEO of warehouse giant Segro, was a competitive swimmer.
Join the right firm
The long overdue drive for diversity in business seeks to persuade us that anyone from any background can reach the top. That is truer than it used to be, but high-fliers are still trained up by a handful of firms. The accounting giants PwC and Deloitte offer financial skills, consulting firm McKinsey is a production line for problem solvers and Procter & Gamble teaches marketing, sales and communications to young leaders peddling its soap powder and shampoo.
Follow your heart
Instinct is important. Sir Lloyd Dorfman ditched investment banking to found his currency exchange business Travelex from a single outlet in 1976. Richard Houston, the senior partner and chief executive of Deloitte in 13 countries, might have followed his father into science if meeting his future wife had not put him off studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year.
Challenge your superiors
“Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” states Amazon, in a list of 14 leadership techniques it looks for when hiring. An ‘obligation to dissent’ has been a core principle at McKinsey for years. It was first expressed by one of the management consultancy’s founding partners, Marvin Bower, who understood that respectful disagreement can be a powerful tool.
Find a mentor
Learning from the best at close quarters creates a halo effect. The chairman of Inter Ikea since 2016, Anders Dahlvig, was the personal assistant to Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, while the London Stock Exchange’s chief executive David Schwimmer was chief of staff to Lloyd Blankfein during his 20-year rise at Goldman Sachs.
Getting it wrong is a badge of honour, especially in Silicon Valley. Reid Hoffman is fêted for co-founding LinkedIn, but his early social networking effort, Socialnet.com, did not get far. Evelyn Bourke, recently retired group CEO of Bupa, the private healthcare insurer, recalls a formative flop was trying to build an Italian financial advice firm.
The CEO might seem as if he or she leads a charmed life, but chances are they did not reach their career pinnacle without years of slog and family sacrifice. Mark Cutifani, CEO of diversified mining giant Anglo American, which owns diamond retailer De Beers, was so keen to get on that he raced through his engineering degree at Wollongong University in New South Wales while working night shifts in a mine.
This might seem a side issue in the cut-throat world of business, but alpha-style leaders are out and diplomats are in. Combining purpose, authenticity and delivery is the key to success, and the best leaders bring their people with them. They still need to be smart, but EQ – emotional intelligence – has become just as important as IQ.
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