How to become a CEO: What makes a great chief executive?

By Robert Half on 18 September 2019

Becoming a great chief executive officer (CEO) is one of the ultimate goals in business and one’s career.

As the highest ranking executive officer of a company, the CEO sets the strategy and future direction of a business.

While it may seem like a near impossible position to aim for some, many ambitious professionals still aspire, and want to know how to become a CEO – specifically, what does it take to become one, what commonalities they may have, and what steps they can implement today to set themselves on the right pathway.

Who is the CEO?

The role of the CEO differs from organisation to organisation, according to the unique demands of each business and the structure at board level. But typically, tasks include creating and implementing the vision, mission, and overall direction of the business, and directing and evaluating the work of other executives.

CEOs are also responsible for formulating the strategic plan, representing the organisation in business and the media, and motivating the company in the same direction.

What does it take become a CEO?

If you have aspirations of becoming a CEO, you will require a considerable amount of intelligence, focus, determination and flair for business. The career pyramid gets very narrow at the top, and this means there will be no shortage of suitable candidates with management skills interested in any CEO vacancy.

The DNA of the modern CEO continues to evolve as businesses operate in an increasingly competitive and changing environment,” says David Jones, Senior Managing Director of Robert Half Asia Pacific. “Being a key feature of the ASX 200 CEOs, we’re seeing high demand for senior professionals who display strong financial leadership and commercial acumen.”

For candidate who want to know how to become a great CEO, typically a great chief executive has a strong educational background, with wide and varied experience in business, plus a proven track record of success. As such, CEOs are predominantly professionals who have acquired knowledge, wisdom and sound judgement over time, and often great chief executives work their way up through the company.

In terms of personal qualities, CEOs need to be clear communicators who are capable of both giving direction and accepting expert opinion. They must be energetic, calm under pressure and ever-objective, while having the creative ideas needed to give the business an advantage over its competitors.

What does the typical CEO look like?

Anyone with the requisite skills and experience has the opportunity to become a great chief executive, although it appears some candidates may have an advantage over others.

Currently the majority of ASX 200-listed CEOs have a background in finance (47%)*, emphasising the value of a clear understanding of the ‘numbers’ underpinning any organisation.

Education can be a fundamental stepping stone to reaching the top job, with just over four-fifths of ASX 200 CEOs holding an undergraduate, and little over half having earned a postgraduate degree. And of these top level executives, less than a quarter have an MBA qualification.

How many years does it take to become a CEO?

Currently the average tenure amongst ASX 200-listed CEOs is 6.5 years with their current company. 

How to become a CEO - what are your chances?

“Naturally, it takes a very driven individual to become CEO – of any type of company,” says Jones. “As organisations operate in increasingly uncertain times, they need to proactively identify the right talent for the top job.

Becoming a CEO calls for confidence, leadership and strong communication skills while being able to motivate and inspire a broad range of employees. It is a position that needs a willingness to adopt fresh ideas, embrace new technologies and responsibly explore opportunities to achieve sustainable company growth.

Before you decide whether you want to pursue the pathway of a CEO, it’s important to establish your ability to thrive under pressure, juggle multiple demands, grasp new concepts quickly, and recognise potential opportunities that will contribute to a company’s bottom line. And beyond the qualities of a CEO, you need to ensure that you make your own case for selection as strong as possible, by also gaining the required skills and experience.

“With the advancement of automation, digital transformations, regulatory frameworks, and globalisation, companies need leaders who can not only meet business goals, but also successfully take advantage of these changes, whilst also possessing the strong financial acumen in order to keep their organisation afloat during continuously fluctuating economic conditions,” says Jones.

Ultimately, when it comes knowing how to become a CEO, the facts remains that there is no singular pathway. Every candidate must find their own journey to success if they aspire to achieve the top position of any organisation.

Robert Half Executive Search specialises in the search for and placement of executive leadership talent across a broad spectrum of function areas and industry sectors. Contact us today for a confidential conversation about your next C-suite move.

*ABOUT THE RESEARCH - Robert Half has conducted research on CEOs of the ASX 200 by analysing publicly available sources of information about ASX 200 CEOs to track trends including their professional and educational background, gender, and length of tenure. The research was analysed from the 1st June 2019 to 1st July 2019, and all results are correct to the best of our knowledge​ ​ The information within the Robert Half CEO Tracker is based on publicly-available information. Where possible, the information has been checked and verified by the offices of the CEOs.​

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