Very often I receive the question from young managers inquiring about the route they need to take in order to get the top job in their company. They desire to be CEO, the Chief Executive Officer. While the journey to success is different for everyone, in this space I will endeavor to make available to you just a few of the things I see in the most successful CEOs I have coached and with whom I have worked.
Be a specialist. Learn everything you can about your chosen field and come to understand it completely. Be the person who knows the company from the ground up. Warren Buffett did not become one of the wealthiest men in the world simply by buying and selling stocks. He did it by becoming deeply interested in the businesses he is considering as an investment or as an owner. He learns everything he can about the company in question and the industry it is in. He makes sure he knows exactly what he is buying and what the possibilities are and are not about the future of the business. For you to become head of a company, you need to understand it fully, every aspect of how it works, what it is and what it is not.
Learn the language of business. The primary language of a business is spoken through numbers and you better know them forward and backward. How many times have you seen the popular television show Shark Tank? If you notice, the most successful business heads know their numbers and they fail miserably when they don’t have a clue or are way off in their estimations. Every decision that is made in running a company is reflected in its Profit and Loss Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet. Business is all about the numbers and if you don’t know them, you don’t know the business. Any leader who is not exposed to the numbers of the business is not moving up.
Management is fundamental and crucial. Someone with a great idea can start a business, but it takes great management to grow it and turn it into something sustainable. Many entrepreneurs choose franchises to buy because the management book has already been written, however most all other businesses are not that way, you have to write the book as you go. Without good management, a business will languish with low productivity, efficiency and results. Good management can turn a mediocre company into something special and bad management can take a success and ruin it. Good management builds hard assets. I have seen some managers who could run any kind of business and be successful and I have seen others I would not let them run my vacuum cleaner. You must learn and master the principles of management.
Leadership is responsible for the human element of the company. Leaders at the top must be great at developing culture. Making sure the company is full of an environment rich with talent that is always learning and growing. It starts at the top. Leaders at the top must be good at setting a truly differentiated strategy, which maps a plan to create a margin of protection around the business to separate it from competitors and keep it viable. Leaders at the top must be good at growing and developing the brand of the business. They must make sure the brand contains evidence of its unique distinction in the marketplace. Good leadership builds intangible but extremely valuable assets. You must study the great power of leadership and develop your leadership acumen.
You must learn the power of trust. You have to be able to invest trust in the people you work with. This will propel your career. You will learn, hopefully, that the team you lead can do amazing things if you can invest the trust in them to perform. If you can trust their judgment, then by default, you can trust them. If and when you do get to the top, if you haven’t learned, you will quickly that the success you enjoy will largely depend on the team members you choose. No CEO does it alone without a strong, competent executive team. As CEO, you will be most vulnerable to pressure and criticism when decisions go bad, but behind the scenes you will need the faith and trust of a good team, not only to perform at a high level but also to help you correct things which may go awry. This is powered by trust. Start investing it in people now.
Learn to think in longer time frames. Today’s success is no protection against tomorrow’s failures. You may be seduced by the attraction of decisions that contain short-term rewards, but seasoned pro CEOs know better than to take this avenue. Hunters want to kill something today not knowing if the game will be out tomorrow, but farmers prepare the soil, plant the seed and care for it for long-term, multiple harvests. You must be able to work through the risks and rewards of all possible routes the business could take. The rate of change is happening faster than ever before, this means the ground is literally shifting beneath your feet many times. You must have the discipline to keep your head and retain your balance. Learn the ability to connect the dots, zoom out and see the bigger, long-term picture.
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