Why exactly do people want to become CEOs? It’s not like the childhood desire to be an astronaut or firefighter, but more a longing to be at the tiny top of a very large pyramid. It may indeed be that drive that makes someone the right fit for the top position in a company. But most people only come to the ideal late in their career. In fact, as the authors of The CEO Next Door, Elena Botelho, Kim Powell, and Tahl Raz say, “The reality is that over 70 percent of the CEOs we have interviewed had no idea they wanted to be a CEO until they reached senior executive roles late in their career.”
Does the CEO have an aura because of the handful of CEOs who are seen as special, who are lauded for their work leading companies, turning them around, building new products that become commonplace? The image we have of CEOs is often skewed. We look at the famous ones, like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, or Marissa Mayer, who are larger than life, and who cultivate the image of the CEO as a superstar. Being a CEO isn’t actually that big a deal: the authors point out that there are 2 million CEOs in the United States alone, if you count all businesses with more than five employees.
Who The CEO Next Door Is For
The authors are involved in ghSMART, a consulting company that tries to match CEOs with businesses. ghSMART has developed methods for evaluating executives to determine if they are up to the role of corporate leadership. They established a project to try to quantify the characteristics needed for CEOs. “What we came to call the CEO Genome Project broke new ground in understanding what drives leadership success, uncovering insights that typical regression analysis never could have picked up.”
As such, this book attempts to sketch out the qualities that make a great CEO, and help those interested in the job to hone their skills to prepare for such a role. The four behaviors they have identified “that transform ordinary people into world-class leaders” are:
“Decisiveness, Engaging for Impact, Relentless Reliability, and Adapting Boldly. […] They are behaviors and habits shaped by practice and experience, and they can be developed at any time in your career.”
And The CEO Next Door is not just about quantifiable skills; it is also motivational: “The fact is, CEO leadership requires outstanding capabilities—but capability isn’t enough. To become a CEO, an individual must be able to see and believe in that possibility in order to believe it might be an achievable destination.”
What is a CEO?
A quote that opens chapter 3 is an excellent example of the role of a CEO. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor and Music Director of The Los Angeles Philharmonic, says:
“A conductor is nothing without an orchestra.”
This is probably the best example of an effective CEO: someone who guides a staff of highly qualified employees in order to achieve a desired outcome. And they all have to work together, in harmony, to realize that outcome.
Being a CEO involves a great deal of juggling among various stakeholders: shareholders, the Board of Directors, employees, the press, and above all customers. Great CEOs know how to prioritize their actions toward these different stakeholders, and communicate with each one appropriately and efficiently.
“Despite their power and authority, CEOs are almost entirely dependent on the actions of others for their success.”
Being a CEO is also not an accident. “Becoming a CEO isn’t necessarily about background or good fortune. It’s about performance, about behaviors that most of us can master with hard work, close attention, and the techniques we share in this book.”
The CEO Next Door is full of anecdotes about CEOs, some well-known and some not, discussing how they reacted in certain situations. Different CEOs face radically different situations, with companies at various levels of success, or on the verge of failure, and the CEO has to come in and adapt to that context. It takes a special person, with a unique personality, to manage a large company.
“The people who ultimately get picked are those who lead with fierce competence delivered with genuine warmth.”
We see the CEO as a leader with carefully honed skills, but in the end, “The position of CEO requires one to be the ultimate generalist.”
Being a CEO, According to The CEO Next Door
Once someone gets to the top, things get difficult. “The third section of this book is dedicated to helping leaders avoid the biggest mistakes first-time CEOs make.” One important element is to choose an effective team to support the CEO. “Seventy-five percent of first-time CEO mistakes are about not moving quickly enough to build the right team.” Chapter 10 in The CEO Next Door covers this in detail, with advice that could be useful for anyone in a high-level managerial position.
Then the CEO needs to deal with the Board of Directors, a group of people whose interests may not align with yours as CEO. “Failure to manage the board is among the top three most commonly cited mistakes made by new CEOs.” New CEOs need to suss out the power dynamics among the different board members, some of whom may have been involved in the company for a very long time. In fact, one of them may have wanted the CEO position themselves.
Why Read The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People Into World-Class Leaders
Whether you’re the founder of a small startup or work in a large corporation, if you have ambitions of becoming a CEO, this book will help you understand the skills you need to be able to take on the mantle of CEO. While it won’t necessarily get you that job as a corporate leader, it may help you get closer to the top, and many of the insights in this book will help even if you are leading a small company.
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