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Three steps to career heaven for those who want to be a chief executive

    • Smart Thinking from SmartSearch
Three steps to career heaven for those who want to be a chief executive
Jon Dilling, The 7th of February, 2018

If you’re looking to become a chief executive, you may be able to do it in three key steps according to the findings of a ten-year study reported in the Harvard Business Review.

The authors, Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell and Nicole Wong, looked at 17,000 top executive assessments and studied 2,600 of these in depth. They identified three key steps that “CEO sprinters”, those who reached the top faster than the average 24 years, took.

They found three “catapult” moves that propelled them into the top spots – 97% of them made at least one of these moves, whilst just under half had made two.


The first step feels a bit like downsizing – “Go small to go big”. “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”, say the authors.

This may seem counter-intuitive but moving into a role in a smaller organisation – or even stating up a business – can create opportunities to take on a wider brief.

Since CEOs need to have an ability to manage across a wide horizon, it can help to get an early view of one.


The “second step” is to “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,” said the authors.

As others have put it, always say “yes” to big challenges and then find out how to do it.


Finally, aspiring CEOs should “inherit a big mess”. Put yourself in the middle of something almost unmanageable and then sort it out. Doing so will not only create massive value for the organisation but demonstrate your ability to do this. The learning itself will stand you in good stead for whatever comes along.

As Botelho et al put it: “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.”

For more, read The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study – by Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell and Nicole Wong,

Jon Dilling is Managing Partner of SmartSearch, Jobsgopublic’s affordable
headhunting solution.

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