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Published on October 16, 2018

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

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

More by this author

Malachi Thompson

Executive Leadership and Performance Consultant

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Last Updated on November 14, 2018

Have You Fallen Into the ‘Busy’ Trap? Here’s Your Way Out

Have You Fallen Into the ‘Busy’ Trap? Here’s Your Way Out

Do you find yourself constantly feeling busy? Or, maybe you feel like you have too much on your plate? Perhaps you have a to-do list with no end in sight, or many responsibilities to juggle on a daily basis at work. When you get home, you have household responsibilities to take care of, too, and it just seems like you never have much time for a breather.

Being busy is good, it’s better than not having anything to do and letting time slip away. But, what many people don’t realize is, being busy doesn’t always mean you’re being productive. The more time you take to complete something does not equal to more success. Many people end up falling into this trap as they pack their day with tasks and errands that may sometimes produce little outcome or output for the effort that they’ve put in.

For example, let’s say that your washing machine at home broke down and you need to fix it. Instead of calling the handyman to come, your husband decides he’s going to fix the machine. He ends up spending half a day figuring out the machine, and does eventually fix it. He did however have to make a trip to the tool shop to buy some extra tools and parts for the machine. Now, if you had called the handy man, it would probably have taken the handyman much less time, and he would have all the necessary tools and parts already, because that is his job. So in this instance, was your husband’s time and effort worth it? Oh, and because he took half the day fixing the machine, you now had to take over his duties of dropping the kids off at soccer and swim practice.

We Need Not Be That Busy

I hope you would agree, that it would have been ideal to delegate this task to the handyman. That would have saved you time and effort, so that you and your husband could focus on doing other things that were more important to you, like being there for your kids or spending time with each other. This is just one example of how we often impose busyness on ourselves without us even realizing it.

But, I’m going to show you just how you can gain quality time from external sources. Whatever big goals or ambitions that you may have, it’s normal for them to involve a lot more of your time than you first expect. I’m talking about things like starting a new business, changing careers, perhaps even moving to a new city. New challenges often involve things that are outside of our experience and expertise, so covering all the bases ourselves is sometimes not feasible as it takes too much time to learn and do everything.

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You Are Just One Person

At the end of the day, you are just one person, and you have a limited amount of time. So, you have to do things that are meaningful to you. While an overall goal may be meaningful, not all of the milestones needed to get there may be meaningful. Because we all have our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, not every task will be enjoyable or all fun & games. Some simply require pure willpower and discipline to grind through. And that is where delegation comes in.

What is Delegation?

You may hear this term a lot in the business or corporate world; it’s an effective way for managers to distribute (or sometimes avoid!) work. But, that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, delegation means leveraging time from an outside source to give you opportunities to increase your quality time. By outside source, we simply mean that it’s not your own time that you’re spending.

What Should You Delegate?

To delegate effectively, it has to be done with deliberate intention. So the aim of delegation is to create more quality time for yourself. There are 3 types of tasks that you should generally delegate, called the Delegation Triangle.

The first are tasks you don’t enjoy doing. These are things that you know how to do, but don’t enjoy. Second, are tasks you shouldn’t do. These are things you know how to do and may even enjoy, but may not be the best use of your time. Third, are tasks you can’t do. These are things that need doing, but you don’t have the skills or expertise to follow through with them at this moment.

Have a look through your daily tasks and responsibilities, and see if you can fit them under these 3 categories.

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Pitfalls of Delegation

Using the Delegation Triangle, you can decide which tasks are worth delegating. In theory, it might look easy to sort actions at first glance; but often, it’s actually harder than you think! 

One such example, is diverting time on tasks you shouldn’t do. Let’s go back to the washing machine example. Your husband decides to fix it on his own instead of simply getting an expert to fix it. Why? Because it’s probably a challenge he enjoys, and it’s an accomplishment that would bring him satisfaction. However, if the value of the task is too low, you really ought to delegate it to others.

Sometimes, when you have a larger goal in mind, you might have to sacrifice some actions in return for making progress. Always think about the bigger picture! One thing that can help you avoid this pitfall is to keep your deadlines in mind whenever you set milestones for a project or task.

Deadlines are a commitment to yourself, and every bit of time is precious. So if an activity you’re focusing on is taking time away from progress towards your goal, it may be time to let go of it for now. You can always decide to pick it up again later.

Then there’s the other extreme of delegation. And that’s when you start delegating everything you dislike doing to external sources.Sometimes it’s tempting to abuse delegation and get carried away outsourcing everything on your “don’t like doing” list.

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Some people are too picky on what they’re going to do. But sometimes, if you don’t like doing so but you’re the only one who can do it, you still need to finish the job. At the end of the day, it does take your own hard work and effort to achieve the success you want.

So if you find that you’re constantly running into this problem of over delegating, then it may be time to re-evaluate your motivation, or reason for doing whatever it is that you’re doing.

Ask yourself, “Is this task contributing towards a meaningful objective that I want to achieve?” and “what kind of progress do I make each time I carry out the task myself?” If the task is both meaningful and creates progress, then the next step is to ask yourself questions that can help you create actions.

What obstacles are causing you to avoid this task? Is it because of low confidence in your ability? Do you think someone else can do a better job? Is it your level of focus? Or is there an alternative action you can take that can produce the same results?

Take Action Now

Take a look at your current tasks or to-do’s that you have planned this week. Which tasks are possible candidates that fall under the Delegation Triangle? Are there any that fall under the pitfalls mentioned above? Which tasks can you immediately identify that should be delegated out right now?

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I hope this exercise helps declutter your tasks and responsibilities a little and allows you to see how much more time you can be saving for more important things. But, this is not the end of delegation. After you’ve sorted out the tasks that can be delegated, the next step is to determine who it should be delegated to. Besides people like your co workers, or spouse/family members, did you know that there is a whole delegating industry out there?

If you’re keen to learn more about this delegating industry, and find out how you can decide who’s the best fit to do your delegated tasks, subscribe to our newsletter today. We will help you discover many more skills that will boost your productivity by leaps and bounds!

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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