When was the last time you heard a child say “When I grow up, I want to be a CEO!” If your child said this—or if you say it to yourself, or know someone who does—what advice could you give on how to make that dream a reality?
A recent article in the New York Times takes up this question. Turns out, the path to the ultimate C-suite office is not a straight-forward combination of training and education, but rather involves multiple personal disruptions—career pivots made to acquire a broader, richer array of work experiences and expertise. “Early evidence,” the article says (and some of that evidence, I should mention, is supplied by a large LinkedIn study), “suggests that success in the business world isn’t just about brainpower or climbing a linear path to the top, but about accumulating diverse skills and showing an ability to learn about fields outside one’s comfort zone.”
Being the best at any one thing is not important, while being very good at a multitude of tasks is.
For most chief executives, the key is to augment the principal domain focus of early training with time spent learning and operating in additional domains. Marketing experience, for instance, added to financial management, coupled with superb technological acumen—the latter being the single most dominant common denominator of C-suite occupants of every stripe—is the type of potent combination that increasingly characterizes a superstar headed for the top. To wit, “In a 2014 survey of 2,100 chief financial officers by Robert Half Management Resources, 85 percent said their role had expanded beyond traditional accounting and finance-related work over the preceding three years, most commonly into human resources and information technology.”
The data demonstrate that acquiring expertise in additional functions trumps longer experience in a single arena. Multiple function mastery can also help compensate for educational credentials that are less than stellar, such as earning an M.B.A. from a non-prestigious business school.
Those who dream of a seat at the head of the table also take a close look at corporate culture when picking bosses to work for. Early career mentors—talent developers—who enthusiastically facilitate personal disruption, movement across a spectrum of functions, frequently without regard for initial qualification, can be invaluable.
Interestingly, moving from one company won’t necessarily slow down the ascent; nor will it necessarily give it a boost. But jumping industries is a no-no. Deep and broad experience across the functions of a single industry provides the most likely springboard to significant leadership positions.
The path to the ultimate C-suite office is not a straight-forward combination of training and education, but rather involves multiplepersonal disruptions.
Shortly, I will launch the Disrupt Yourself podcast. My first guest will be Michelle McKenna-Doyle, Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the National Football League. In our conversation, she explained the purview of a CIO, indicating CIOs are increasingly being tapped for CEO vacancies because CIOs have to understand how all the parts of a company work, and how they work together, and how all the specific component operations are accomplished. This enterprise-level perspective and acumen is required to be an enterprise-level leader and it is only gained through successive career reinventions undertaken to acquire new capabilities.
Not everyone wants to be a CEO, and that’s laudable. Where would we be without firefighters and teachers and people who engage in the full complement of worthy and valuable life pursuits? But those who dream of being a CEO need a roadmap to get there, something that studies are only now beginning to delineate. From picking a university to picking a profession or a company or choosing a home base, the willingness to learn new things, embrace new challenges and invest in new competencies through personal disruption is a key to success and fulfillment, and provides a pattern that can help all of us achieve personal and professional goals, no matter our chosen field of endeavor.
This post originally published at Linkedin