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Rise to the Top: Becoming a CEO

How do CEOs get to their position? CEOs typically have a lot of drive and ambition. They're willing to work hard and take risks.

Do you have what it takes?

A CEO (short for chief executive officer) is the highest-ranking position in a corporation. Corporations can be publicly owned, meaning they are listed on a stock market. Or they can be privately owned. In both public and private corporations, the CEO reports to a board of directors.

David Robinson is the CEO of a technology consulting firm in Florida. He has started more than a dozen companies over the years.

Robinson had his first job at age 11, delivering newspapers. "I had to get up at 3 a.m. every morning," Robinson says. "I'd go deliver papers for an hour and I'd go back to bed and fall back asleep and then have to get myself back up. It was painful, but I made money. I was proud of the money I had."

Robinson says he had an "internal drive" that continued in his teen years (and has never gone away). He says many other business leaders he knows also had jobs from an early age -- and not because their parents forced them to, but because they wanted to earn their own money.

"I had summer jobs all the time, and I had babysitting jobs and other odds-and-ends jobs all throughout high school, and I managed to balance it [with school and other responsibilities]," says Robinson.

All those jobs made him appreciate the value of a dollar. Working taught him how to keep a budget and that he "couldn't go hog wild with spending my money," he says. But it's not all about money. CEOs are competitive people who get great satisfaction from investing their energies into making something grow.

"Ultimately, most CEOs... are in it for the challenge and reward," says Robinson. "And the reward isn't only monetary."

Aspiring CEOs should consider studying topics such as psychology, English, computer science, economics or political science.

Business experience and expertise in a discipline is also valuable. Many of today's CEOs were hired because they were experts in their field -- lawyers in a legal business or engineers in an engineering firm, for example. New CEOs should be in demand as baby boomers start reaching retirement age in the coming decade.

There is a lot of variety in the wages paid to CEOs. Boards are becoming less willing to offer huge bonuses and stock options. And due to corporate scandals and abuses, directors are becoming very careful about authorizing incentive packages.

Still, the average total compensation for chief executives is well into the millions, according to Forbes.

With those big bucks comes big pressure. "Not everyone can be a CEO," says Robinson. "Not everyone's cut out for it. There's a lot of stress.

"I know when I started each of my businesses, there's a lot of sleepless nights, there's a lot of work and a lot of dedication," Robinson adds. "But I become possessed by these things... and that's when you put your energy in and go."

The best way to know if you're well suited to being a CEO is to try it out. Start a small business. Even a newspaper delivery job lets you start to apply business skills -- things like managing your time and tracking your revenues.

"If someone's really interested in being a CEO, I suggest they try it earlier rather than later," says Robinson. "Because when you don't have family... you can put all your energy [into your work]. The most valuable commodity you have is time and so you can put it all in... and create something.

"So pursue your idea, pursue your vision and make it happen," Robinson adds. "And the school of hard knocks is to me better than almost any degree you can hang on your wall."

When CEOs do hang a degree on their wall, their degree of choice is often an MBA. That makes sense, since MBAs were created to teach people how to lead businesses.

"The MBA was truly designed from the outset to develop senior and executive leaders of businesses," says Steve James. He's the director of a business school.

"It was designed to take engineers and musicians and nurses and lawyers and give them not the micro skills of running a business but the macro perspective of running a business," James adds.

"The MBA is designed to nurture people to eventually go into those executive ranks. It prepares them right away to work in those corporate headquarters that are looking at the overall purpose of a company and its way ahead."

An MBA mostly gives aspiring CEOs what are called hard skills -- things like understanding corporate structures and reading spreadsheets. But CEOs also need soft skills, which are things that are harder to define, like people skills, persuasiveness and vision.

Executive coaches help CEOs build those kinds of skills and cope with the pressures of leadership. They are business strategists such as AmyK Hutchens.

Hutchens says CEOs need strong communication skills, a clear vision and passion that aligns with their purpose. That's common knowledge, she says. But the best CEOs are lifelong learners. They become experts on a particular topic and then continue to add to their knowledge in diverse areas.

"Some of the great CEOs are open to lifelong learning," says Hutchens. "They seek relevance in novel information and apply it to form new relationships and new ideas to foster innovative growth in a myriad of business areas. It's an important skill for sustaining innovation and retaining top talent."

The most successful CEOs are those "...who are constantly open to learning, and exploring a wide variety of disciplines and interests," says Hutchens. "The intersection of these disciplines and perspectives fosters more thoughtful decisions down the road."

You don't have to wait to start down the road toward becoming a CEO. Consider getting a taste of it by starting a small business while you're still in school.


Humility -- The Key to Management Success
An interesting article about 'hard' vs. 'soft' skills for CEOs

Future Business Leaders of America
A business education association that prepares students for careers in business

Becoming a CEO
Do you have what it takes?

Back to Career Cluster


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