“If you want to be a CEO, then you must focus on being a great leader”.
Richard Baker, former CEO Alliance Boots
With a sneak peak into our book, The Secrets of CEOs, here are 10 top tips from visionary CEOs on how to start your quest to becoming a CEO if you’re in your 20s.
The majority of CEOs that we spoke to only got a sense of their career mission in their late 20s or 30s, but if you’re in your early 20s and you already have an idea, you’re ahead of the game in terms of what you can do to prepare to be a great CEO.
Most CEOs we talked to thought that traditional career planning is outdated and it’s better to think of your career as divided into broad phases of leadership development. We look into what these phases are and what you should be aware of when preparing to lead.
1. Building the right foundations
To become a CEO for tomorrow, you will need a very broad range of experiences.
“The first few years of a career have to be about investing to understand. Be an apprentice, get your hands dirty and take risks…it’s about getting loads of experience”. Lord Browne, former CEO BP
Damian Reece, head of business at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, observes:
“The younger generation of CEOs are less conservative, probably because they have been schooled in an internet decade and are naturally, therefore, more ambitious, confident, commercial, aggressive, and ‘can do’. Build a career: ignore conventional advice, take more risk at an earlier age and aim to be a great leader”.
“The question is: ‘What do you like’? Try a lot of things and figure out what you like during your early life and career…You need to discover whether you have got leadership qualities or not and you can only discover that through experience…It can’t be taught and you don’t know until you’ve tried to lead”. Eric Daniels, former CEO Lloyds
2. Have a medium-term goal but try not to overplan
If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to 20 somethings now it would be, don’t worry about the state of the job market. Don’t feel pressured to spend hours filling in hundreds of job applications for a prestigious or supposedly ‘safe’ professional career track or graduate training scheme. What was safe yesterday may not be what will sustain a career tomorrow, and there will be plenty of time for all of that later.
“You cannot lay out an objective and a route to it when you’re young. You should be more flexible and take risks. Broaden your perspectives and experience; change country and industry: that depth of experience marks you out to employers”. Tony Davis, former CEO, Tiger Airways
**Remember: skilling up is a serious business, not a counsel for an easy life.**
“You need to know where you are. Your 20s are the new teens. They’re all about discovery about yourself, but they’re also about building skills because, if you don’t, you’re unlikely to be happy down the track”. Eric Daniels
3. Don’t be afraid to take risks
Now is the time to take risks, to fail fast and fail early. As Lord John Browne, the former CEO of BP told me: “The downside risk is lower than you think at any other point in your life.”
“Every time I’ve moved company, people have thought me mad. I’ve left successful positions with great prospects for riskier options because I get frustrated if things aren’t moving fast. The key thing is to keep life fun and not to get bored…Get out there and take risks”. James Bilefield, former CEO, OpenX
Thras Moraitis speaks from experience on this point:
“Find a trend, get a foothold, raise capital, and take an expansive view; there’s no issue if you blow out early. I had 13 ventures before Xstrata”.
4. Worried about finances?..Don’t be!
The financial sums you put at risk early on in your career are tiny compared to your likely earnings later, as Tony Davis (former CEO Tiger Airways) learnt. “When I was leaving British Airways at 29 to go to the Middle East, I was really concerned about my pension. That’s now a tiny sum of money for me”.
5. Make your first job a fast stable
Your first job has to be in what Archie Norman (former CEO, ASDA) calls “a fast stable”. He believes that the great leadership brands i.e. Mars, Tesco and professional services firms give employees fast experience. Working for large companies like this can be tough but will force you to deal with and learn from challenging experiences. Future employers will like that you’ve known failure and have felt the fire.
At the start of your career, your priority has to be to learn the basic technical skills of business as quickly as possible and to find some of your personal limits. Joining a fast stable will probably keep your mum off your back and put money in your pocket!
6. Get broad experiences as fast as possible
A fast stable will also set you up to broaden and collect business and personal leadership experiences and take on calculated risk even more quickly.
Having decided aged 19 that he wanted to run Ford, Keith Butler-Wheelhouse trained himself in all aspects of the business: “manufacturing, product development and engineering, finance and treasury, sales and marketing”.
Choose your first job wisely:
“The professions are a great grounding: accounting firms, consultancies, investment banks and search firms all give you business experience in deals, finance and people, but also complex problem solving, presentation at board level, and also performing under pressure”. Mitch Garber, CEO Caesar Acquisitions Company
As you move around, try to get experience in two to three industries, three to four functions within them, and of working under different capital structures, such as for private equity owners or a family office.
7. Get a mentor
Try to pick up a coach and a mentor pretty early on. Hone your strengths and work on your weaknesses where you can. E.g. is poor energy management what really holds you back? Vitally, integrate what you learn about yourself into your everyday life.
8. Go where the growth and future opportunities are going to be
“Most people predict tomorrow looking at yesterday, but the great leaders recognise the cyclical nature of the world”. Tony Robbins
Look at history, recognise the cycles that markets and the economy go through and position yourself to take advantage. Rising tides lift all boats: only go into a winning company or a winning sector. Growth industries mean disruption and innovation.
“Learning to thrive in an era of constant change is a competitive advantage that every business leader has to embrace…Listen to the customer you want to serve and fully understand their needs. Then, and only then, can you offer products and services that are truly differentiates and valued by your customers”. Michael Dell, CEO Dell Computer
9. Work globally
Make your career global as early as possible – and that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘work’ in the conventional sense. Don’t just stick to your own country – go global, get out there, get fast experiences and enjoy life. Rather than becoming a ‘gap-year bore’ following the same well-worn paths as everybody else, make your own trail and create an exciting life customizing your own global walkabout.
“You need to have a feel for the world in terms of the history and cultures of western countries, but also emerging markets and undiscovered countries to be an effective global CEO in the future”. Philip Green, CEO United Utilities
Frank Brown, dean of Paris-Based business school INSEAD, believes that future business executives should make a deliberate effort to become global by spending periods in foreign cultures.
“It’s about not going from the US or the UK to Australia for a pub-crawl (as tempting as that sounds!), but going to Tokyo, Beijing, or Sao Paulo, experiencing a different culture and trying to get by in a different language. It’s about understanding that things there are much, much different”.
“We need people who can move seamlessly across borders and cultures and who feel as comfortable working in Mumbai as they do in Atlanta; people who can speak the language of sophisticated modern trade”. Muhtar Kent, CEO Coca-Cola
10. Have fun!
If I were in my 20s again, I’d do it completely differently. I would accelerate the experience, and have much more fun. Yes, you need to prepare by getting the right experiences, as above, but you don’t want to regret working and not living in your 20s. You’ve got the rest of your life to do that!
CEOs like Mitch Garber make a point of hiring people with life experience outside work:
“It’s important to have…business leadership experiences and a broad experience of life. It is diverse experiences which allow me to talk to and relate to employees at all levels”.
There’s a lot more to life than work and money. If you can’t manage your work/life balance in your 20s, you won’t stand a chance later in life as obligations become more significant.
Following these 10 top tips should help you on the road to becoming a great CEO later on in your career, and give you a happy, fulfilling and inspiring life at the same time.
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If you’re in your 20s do these tips resonate with you? If you’re already a CEO, any more advice for 20 somethings?
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By Steve Tappin
Chief Executive, Xinfu, Host BBC CEO Guru
Steve is a personal confidant to many of the world’s top CEOs. He is the host of the award winning BBC ‘CEO Guru’, which features in-depth, on-the-record interviews with the CEOs of the biggest and fastest-growing companies. Steve is the author of ‘The Secrets Of CEOs’, which interviews 200 CEOs on business life and leadership.