I’m a fan of the thought leadership at ghSmart, a leadership advisory firm that bases its approaches on deep analysis. Their consultants recently published a study on what puts outstanding leaders ahead of the pack?
The piece was summarised by management publication HBR. They outlined the traits of the “CEO sprinters” — those who reached the CEO role faster than the average of 24 years from their first job.
They assembled a data set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied of these 2,600 in-depth to analyse who gets to the top faster and how. They ascertained that the “CEO sprinters” get ahead quicker in the following ways.
- Often, they do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top. Actions and attitude are key as opposed to having “the perfect pedigree”. Only 24% had MBAs from leading business schools.
- Via these job moves they build the specific behaviours that set successful CEOs apart including decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact.
- They tend to do this in settings that get them noticed such as the high visibility roles where very senior stakeholders are keeping an eye on what’s going on. This may be because it’s so critical to the company’s future or its reputation after a crisis, say.
- More than 60% of sprinters took a smaller role at some point in their career. They may have started something new within their company (by launching a new product or division, for example) or moved to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities. Or, started their own business. In each case, they used the opportunity to build something from the ground up and make an outsize impact.
- They make “the big leap,” often in the first decade of their careers saying yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they’ve done previously and they didn’t feel fully prepared. Studies suggest women tend to be less likely to put themselves forward in this way. The authors add, “More than 30% of our sprinters led their teams through a big mess.”
The article concludes that accelerating a career “doesn’t require an elite MBA or a select mix of inborn traits, but it does require a willingness to make lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you aspire to top leadership, you might as well get used to it.”
“Jackie,” the CEO of a transport company, didn’t wait for the big mess to find her. She sought it out. “I liked working on something that was a mess and needed to be figured out: IT, cost, tax. It didn’t matter,” she says. “I got the ugliest assignments. I could unscramble them and figure out an answer.” By stepping up and risking her career on the jobs nobody else dared to tackle, Jackie proved she could deliver results for the good of the company. She landed her first CEO role 20 years after day one in her first job.