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How to Become a CEO at 40 (Or Even 50) and Succeed as a Leader

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How to Become a CEO at 40 (Or Even 50) and Succeed as a Leader

If you have always had the dream inside you that you would one day be leading the charge of a successful company, you just might, especially if you have a strong accounting or finance background. Even if you don’t, your dream has a great chance of becoming a reality, but there are gaps you will need to bridge. The great news is that you can learn how.

Without a doubt, there are patterns of career pathways of today’s CEOs. Experts in senior executive recruitment Robert Half Asia Pacific formulated a CEO Tracker[1] which monitors and reveals patterns in education, varied work experience and tenure.

So how to become a CEO at 40, or even 50? If you have the following, you’re in good stead for a CEO leadership position:

Education

If you have gained (or are looking to gain) tertiary training such as a college degree, you’re in a favorable position. You’re likely to have a few years head start consideration against someone without it.

Your odds are even better if your focus is business, commerce, economics or financial management. Postgraduate degrees will earn you more gold stars.

Working overseas

Having international work experience says you’re worldly, adaptable and can appreciate great change. Businesses also profit from the wisdom you bring from across the waters.

Such a mindset is highly prized with the globalization of organizations continually increasing.

Lengthy tenure

Not only does this communicate commitment, but it also demonstrates stickability.

Staying with a company for a minimum of eight years in different roles also demonstrates your ability to grow. Your company knowledge will also have grown very strong and internally recruiting CEOs is common.

However, if you lack these milestones in your current career history, all is far from lost. There is no set pathway to becoming a CEO. In today’s digital technology age, starting and scaling a business with few start-up costs is easier than it has ever been.

Leadership qualities

Most importantly, every CEO needs to have key leadership qualities.

Regardless of whether you have the education, experience, knowledge and technical skills or not, these are things you can learn. Everybody can.

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It comes down to your willingness to recognize and commit to a plan of personal development; not just acknowledging it’s necessary but truly following it through:

1. Discover your own vision, mission and passion

A CEO mindset around a business’ mission and vision goes far beyond the mission statement placards randomly dotted on walls in your workplace. Inside you, there needs to be a burning desire to share services and/or products that serve the greater good of a community far greater than you can imagine.

Your thinking contains a legacy that can continue to grow and evolve well after your CEO tenure ends. That burn to bring that legacy to life must be something doesn’t go away with the next bright and shiny idea that comes across your path.

Whatever the cause – whether it’s your own business or one you currently work within – you feel a constant, personal resonation to the cause. You are emotionally fueled to let every potential customer know your service and products exist.

Your ‘why’ is well-aligned with the business’ why and when people ask you about your company, they hear a passion and tone in your voice that shows unwavering commitment and belief.

Your personal brand and the business’ brand, are one. You are a clear ambassador.

2. Engage in projects that build your business confidence

Even though he is not yet 40 years old, 27-year-old Brian Wong is co-founder and CEO of Kiip, a mobile advertising company. He shares one of the biggest mistakes younger professionals make is not choosing projects wisely that help them build business confidence and an entrepreneurial mindset.

Building confidence comes from learning, exploring, undertaking new opportunities and learning to take risks. Demographer Bernard Salt suggests[2] that if you’re in your twenties, take time to do this. You will gain greater clarity of what your deeper, inner passions are. By the time you’re in your mid-thirties, you’re more likely to be ready to put four to six years into establishing a foundation. You’re done with bouncing around between businesses; you’re now yearning for depth.

Regardless of your age, if you don’t know what really drives you and what you want to be committed to longer-term, make it a high priority to develop your own plan and find out.

What gives you contentment despite the ups and downs? What are you constantly curious about that you keep revisiting despite the different opportunities you’ve explored? What is the constant feature that positively resonates inside you?

Don’t stop to take a hiatus and contemplate your navel. The best way is to keep momentum in your working experiences but ask yourself these questions more frequently. Clarity and confidence will come.

3. Start your CEO journey on a smaller scale to fast-track your management skills

If you didn’t go an Ivy League school or have a track record of perfection, researchers Elena Botehlo and Kim Powell have good news for you!

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They found in a ten-year study of 17,000 C-suite executives that 60% of those who fast-tracked their way to CEO status opted to take smaller roles with greater responsibilities during their careers before becoming CEOs.[3]

Whether you’re sub-40 or 40+, taking a step sideways or backward to manage a young team will put you leagues ahead of your peers when it comes to management skills.

If managing people has not been your strength, start with a small group. It might be a short-term project group or an event you coordinate and manage.

When those projects finish, you have a chance to reflect, review, regroup and prepare for your next management challenge. You build management resilience and can strategically improve clusters of leadership skill sets, one at a time.

Give yourself space to do it wisely, in stages. Through staged phases of learning and experience, you won’t be just learning to cope. You will be learning to become a master and contention for CEO will be in your reach sooner than you think.

If paid opportunities are slim, don’t discount volunteer opportunities. In fact, consider these as even more challenging. Often you’re thrust into looking after people you would not have chosen or who are not fit for the roles you need them to do.

If you can successfully pull off managing such groups, the amount of respect you receive can often be a lot greater.

4. Be curious and take a leap of faith

Botelho and Powell found that CEOs in the first decades of their careers took on large projects that they weren’t yet primed for.[4] Rather than questioning their qualifications and abilities, the pre-CEOs took the projects and ran with them.

In addition, Botelho and Powell recognized that CEOs who previously took on the job of cleaning up a mess, fast-tracked their progress to the top spot.

Because the right opportunities are unlikely to fall in your lap, you will need to seek them out. Ask for them. Ask for greater responsibilities. Put your hand up for the jobs others would rather run away from but don’t just throw yourself in the deep end. Be smart about it.

These opportunities are likely to hold more valleys than peaks, so be clever and proactively seek coaching and mentoring to help you manage the hurdles and dark times that lay ahead. Don’t take these projects on without it. Your mental and emotional resilience will need strength training.

Research has shown that throwing yourself in the deep end and learning to swim is not the best way to develop great management skills. You risk your mental and physical health if you don’t have the resources to cope.

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Too many managers get thrown into leadership roles without adequate people skills. That’s the old school way of learning c-suite management skills.

Failure of falling from grace in this way is no longer a noble act. Make the leap, but resource yourself wisely to make it.

5. Design a personal plan to become a better people manager and action it

Managing people is the most expensive and hardest part of running any business. If you don’t have strong emotional intelligence and relationship building skills not only you’re your business’ culture suffers, so too will your clients and customers.

Start with a self-evaluation that specifically looks at what your strengths and weaknesses are as a people manager. It doesn’t have to be a complex process.

A self-assessment through Gallup’s Clifton Strengths and/or review feedback from a reputable, psychometric 360o feedback survey is a food place to start.

There may be some hard truths in there, however, use this as your benchmark.

Consider then, the needs of your business and collaborate with other leaders (not just employees) to help upskill them in areas you are proficient in. Then, exchange your support for their advice on people management strategies and tips that work for them. Collaborate.

There may be specific relationships and personalities you might then target as opportunities for you to improve your leadership skills:

  • having difficult conversations whilst keeping emotions – yours and your employee’s – in check;
  • improving negotiating skills and learning the art of compromise;
  • learning how to never take ‘no’ for an answer;
  • learning how your staff prefer being rewarded, given feedback and adapting your style to benefit them;
  • undertake public speaking training;
  • coming up with progression plans individually tailored for staff to become better versions of themselves.

What else do your organization’s people need that you can use as opportunities to develop yourself? What are the win-wins? How can you add value, learn and fast-track your CEO leadership skills at the same time?

6. Use your intuition to take risks and be decisive

Chief financial officers (CFOs) operate particularly well in the brain’s left hemisphere. Logic, carrying out of operations, planning, structure, tangible numbers…these are all natural activities your left brain looks after.

Vision, expansive thinking, emotional drive and passion all emanate from your right brain. Using your intuition and gut instinct are also right-brain activities.

Whilst it seems the natural progression from CFO is to CEO, that leap is too great for many. Using the gut instinct is not a common feature of an accountant. According to Gary D. Burnison, the difficulty is often in the mindset and the ability to make this shift.[5] Burnison speaks from experience, transitioning from CFO of Korn Ferry (2002-2007) to existing CEO and president of the company.

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Your mindset now needs to reflect a leader who commands direction, not asks for affirmation or permission.

On your journey, you will need to learn to take calculated risks. Gage what risks would be supported (and rejected) by collaborating with your c-suite team. Do your due diligence and practice honing your instinct to make decisions. Forecast different levels of positive impact and negative consequences. Choose, commit, follow through and always engage a review process that helps not only you but your organization to learn.

When you take risks and manage the consequences – good and bad – you improve your aptitude for innovation…something every organization undeniably needs. Thankfully, risks you take don’t need to be big to start with. Consider how you can catalyze small changes that stretch your team’s potential.

If successful, look to see if you can expand the positive effect on other parts of the business. If not, go through the review process. See if you can tackle the project again.

7. Mentorship is a must

Committing to an executive c-suite coach and/or mentor is a must in the same way an elite athlete has an elite coach. If you dream of being a CEO and think it’s just about doing the track work, think again.

Committing to professional mentoring as a normal part of your role clearly demonstrates three main facts to your company’s board of decision-makers:

  • you want your transition to be positive as a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’;
  • you are announcing to your mentorship networks, c-suite executives you’re well on your way and undeniably committed;
  • you’ve chosen to become not just a local player, but a global one.

It was through mentorship channels at Investa Property Group that Ming Long made the transition from CFO to CEO and became the group executive fund manager of the $2.5 billion Invest Office Fund.[6]

Despite being of Asian heritage and feeling an absence of role models to follow, Long became the first Asian female to head an ASX200 company. At 46 years of age, she now sits on several boards and is a member of Chief Executive Women.

If you are not participating actively in a succession-plan mentorship initiative, you’re stalling your own progress. Don’t merely seek your own mentorship through formal associations such as the Young Presidents Organization (YPO). Push to be engaged in whatever initiative of this kind exists within your organization.

Mentorship will not only massively increase your capability to step into the CEO role, but it will also help you stay there and protect your position. From there, you’re likely to expand into board leadership type roles so you won’t only be eyeing off the CEO post as your bull’s eye. You’ll start to look beyond the CEO role for even grander pastures!

Featured photo credit: LinkedIn Sales Navigator via unsplash.com

Reference

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Dr. Malachi Thompson III

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