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Some people’s careers take off, while others’ take longer — or even stall out.
Common wisdom says that the former attend elite MBA programs, land high-powered jobs right out of school at prestigious firms, and climb the ladder straight to the top, carefully avoiding risky moves. But our data shows a completely different picture.
We conducted a 10-year study, which we call the CEO Genome Project, in which we assembled a data set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 in-depth to analyze who gets to the top and how. We then took a closer look at “CEO sprinters” — those who reached the CEO role faster than the average of 24 years from their first job.
We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top. We found that three types of career catapults were most common among the sprinters. Ninety-seven percent of them undertook at least one of these catapult experiences and close to 50% had at least two. (In contrast, only 24% had elite MBAs.)
Through these career catapults, executives build the specific behaviors that set successful CEOs apart — including decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact — and they get noticed for their accomplishments. The catapults are so powerful that even people in our study who never aspired to become CEO ultimately landed the position by pursuing one or more of these strategies.
Go Small to Go Big
The path to CEO rarely runs in a straight line; sometimes you have to move backward or sideways in order to get ahead. More than 60% of sprinters took a smaller role at some point in their career. They may have started something new within their company (by launching a new product or division, for example), moved to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities, or started their own business. In each case, they used the opportunity to build something from the ground up and make an outsize impact.
In his late twenties, “James” was hired in a strategy and business development role inside a multibillion-dollar marketing and communications business. Early in his career, he was offered the chance to build out one of the new businesses. It felt like a demotion, or at best a lateral move, to be handed a blank org chart and a highly uncertain future. “It was zero revenue when I stepped in, and we built that business to $250 million,” he says. By building a new business from scratch, he picked up essential management skills, such as running a P&L, managing a budget, and setting a strategic vision — all critical prerequisites to becoming a CEO (over 90% of the CEOs we studied had general management experience). Thirteen years later, he found himself the CEO of a $1.5 billion education and training business.
Make a Big Leap
More than one-third of sprinters catapulted to the top by making “the big leap,” often in the first decade of their careers. These executives threw caution to the wind and said yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they’ve done previously and they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead.
Take, for example, “Jerry,” who at age 24 joined a $200 million business as a senior accountant. Eight months after being hired, he was offered the CFO position, leapfrogging the controller who hired him. Though he was young and still learning the ropes, he embraced the challenge with gusto. “I was very young for my level, and I was given responsibility ahead of my readiness,” he says. As CFO, he gained insight into a broad set of functions and proved his ability to thrive in a new, uncertain environment. Within nine years, after a stint as COO, he landed his first CEO role.
If you don’t expect this kind of opportunity to fall into your lap, you are not alone. However, what we heard from these sprinters is an attitude of “You make your own luck.” Seek out cross-functional projects that touch numerous aspects of the business. Get involved in a merger integration. Ask your boss for additional responsibilities. Tackle tough, complex problems. Above all, make a habit of saying “yes” to greater opportunities — ready or not.
Inherit a Big Mess
It may feel counterintuitive, and a bit daunting, but one way to prove your CEO mettle is by inheriting a big mess. It could be an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a bankruptcy — any major problem for the business that needs to be fixed fast. More than 30% of our sprinters led their teams through a big mess.
Messy situations cry out for strong leadership. When faced with a crisis, emerging leaders have an opportunity to 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. In other words, it’s great preparation for the CEO job.
“Jackie,” the CEO of a transport company, didn’t wait for the big mess to find her. She sought it out. “I liked working on something that was a mess and needed to be figured out: IT, cost, tax. It didn’t matter,” she says. “I got the ugliest assignments. I could unscramble them and figure out an answer.” By stepping up and risking her career on the jobs nobody else dared to tackle, Jackie proved she could deliver results for the good of the company. She landed her first CEO role 20 years after day one in her first job.
While there is no single path to the CEO seat, these career catapults can be replicated by anyone who aspires to a leadership position, and could be especially powerful for those who may find it harder to get to the top. Women, for example, take 30% longer to get to the CEO role, according to Korn Ferry.
Accelerating your career through these catapults doesn’t require an elite MBA or a select mix of inborn traits, but it does require a willingness to make lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you aspire to top leadership, you might as well get used to it.
Elena Lytkina Botelho is a partner at ghSMART, advising leading CEOs and boards, a coauthor of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller The CEO Next Door, and co-leader of the CEO Genome Project.