How to Become a First-Time CEO

Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceSustainabilityLeadershipSuccessionSustainability OfficersBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive SearchCEO Succession
min Article
Laura Sanderson
September 15, 2021
4 min
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceSustainabilityLeadershipSuccessionSustainability OfficersBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive SearchCEO Succession
Executive Summary
How do you make it to the corner office—and stay there?


Becoming a CEO for the first time is one of the most significant achievements a leader will encounter during their professional career. Reaching this coveted position, though, requires decades of proven success, business acumen, leadership excellence and, of course, a little luck. 

So, how can next-gen leaders position themselves for success?   

Drawing on our experience of placing thousands of CEOs into organizations around the world, we have a unique vantage point on what boards and executive committees look for when vetting CEO candidates.   

Here are the key considerations that next-gen leaders need to think about when looking to break into the corner office. 

Understand what it truly takes to be a high-impact leader

There is not one defining personality trait that allows leaders to succeed. Instead, the best leaders are multifaceted, embodying a complex mix of abilities and personas. When we analyzed the psychological profiles of five million workers and executives, we found that the most effective C-suite leaders embodied both ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ competencies. They were able to handle contradictory, sometimes even conflicting, ideas simultaneously. They showed both rational and emotional intelligence. It is this paradoxical expression of personality, and the resulting agility, that sets the most successful leaders apart.

  • They are both disruptive and pragmatic: Organizations need leaders to disrupt the status quo with innovation, but they also must be pragmatic about focus, priorities, and the pace of innovation.
  • They are both risk-taking and reluctant: A good leader takes calculated risks and is opportunistic, but we also want them to be somewhat reluctant and show some vigilance before steering the organization off a cliff.
  • They are both heroic and vulnerable: A heroic leader needs to be vulnerable as well, in order to command true followership and to avoid their perseverance and grit turning into self-delusions. They need to take feedback and external data to heart and make continuous improvements to themselves and their organizations.
  • They are both galvanizing and connecting: Leaders must galvanize support with energy and inspiration, but they also need to know when to take a step back and share credit, promote the success of others, and to connect the organization to become something stronger and greater than themselves and the cult of their own personality.

Nurture in-demand skills

Every organization will have different criteria to judge incoming CEO candidates against. But we also know that there are certain skills, abilities, and experiences that are increasingly prioritized.

As the world spins faster, leaders are expected to show a willingness and ability to adapt to change. Our CEO Clarke Murphy explains, for example, that boardrooms and executive committees are increasingly looking for CEO candidates with a high LQ, or Learning Quotient. "What the Covid pandemic has brought on is the need for pretty rapid transformation,” he says. “Leaders not only have to have emotional intelligence, they have to have LQ, the ability to learn, listen, watch, and communicate transformation."

Boards today are equally looking for leaders with a demonstrable track record of positively impacting sustainability outcomes or moving the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Demand for these skills will only intensify. Be sure to expose yourself to crucible experiences and development programs that allow you to build muscles in these areas.

Understand routes to the top 

CEOs can come from all parts of an organization, but some titles and experiences statistically have more success than others. For example, a survey of 675 companies among the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 found that more than half of CEOs had previously been COOs or division presidents. By contrast, less than one in 10 had previously held CMO or CFO positions. For those wanting to one day become a CEO, they should position themselves to take on these types of positions when the time is right. That may involve a career transition or an understanding of the need to acquire some of the skills and responsibilities of those jobs to create a more complete leadership picture. Often, gaining P&L experience is critical in order to maneuver into the C-suite and future CEO roles.

Familiarize yourself with succession processes

For leaders who have spent a significant part of their career with one organization, the most direct path to becoming CEO is often through that organization’s succession planning process. Executives should state a desire to one day become CEO, understand the skills the company wants in that position, and seek opportunities to gather the required expertise to meet that criteria. Remember that in the case of a planned CEO departure, the succession planning process starts several years out—typically three to five years before the expected transition. And that candidates are rarely just judged against peers internally, but those externally too.

Stay laser-focused on your vision

A board will always look for the leaders that will move an organization forward—whether that’s expanding into new markets or geographies, driving transformation, or masterminding a turnaround in company fortunes. When the time comes, you must be ready to articulate a bold vision for change and an executable plan for how to get there. You will also need to be clear on why you are the best person to lead this charge. What makes you different? What values do you bring? What is your leadership style? What motivations led you to make the career choices you’ve made? What do you want your legacy to be? The more clear-eyed you can be on these questions, the greater your chances of earning the trust of the board and executive committee—and becoming more than a visitor in that corner office.