CEO path requires focus and flexibility

Monday, October 23, 2006

Getting there might be nearly impossible to accomplish if you don't start planning early in your career.

A humble cubicle may be home for now, but some of you have your eye on something bigger: The executive suite, complete with Oriental rugs, a $20,000 desk and a big paycheck to match.

You want to be a CEO, but getting there might be harder than the actual job -- and, if you don't start planning early in your career, nearly impossible to accomplish.

The key, the experts say, is to set ambitious goals, and then stay focused and flexible. People in their 20s and early 30s are in the best position to capitalize.

"You have to have drive and the ability to manage relationships," said Leonard Greenhalgh, a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. "This is something you can do yourself."

There are several ways to move ahead, depending on your employer and industry.

Get noticed and get a mentor.

If you're lucky, your employer will have some type of program to identify, retain and nurture talent. The chosen few may be more likely to get special training, be paired up with top executives or enjoy other perks designed to further their careers.

Most employers are less structured, though, and it may be up to you to make sure you are considered for promotions.

Regardless of the specifics, figure out what you need to do to get on the fast track. Be vocal about your ambitions, and do a great job so that there is no doubt about your capabilities.

"You've got to stand out. You've got to be noticed by someone who can make a difference in your career," Greenhalgh said. "Someone who is in a position to advocate for you, to present opportunities to you and to tell people that you are an incredibly talented person who the company should develop."

That person can be a boss -- or a mentor. If your company doesn't have a formal mentoring program, find your own. Depending on your corporate culture, it may be acceptable to approach an executive for advice and support. A mentor outside your company can provide broader guidance, but may be of less help if you're looking to move up within your current employer.

Thirty years ago, a CEO might have worked his (there were few "hers" back then) way up from within the company and earned the top job by being a great salesman, or an efficient operations manager. Formal management training was not required.

These days, though, an MBA is an increasingly common credential for top executives.

Generally speaking, a brand-name degree is valuable if you are eyeing the Fortune 100. A full-time program may also offer the best opportunities for learning management theory, networking and job placement after graduation.

But you don't have to go to Harvard to benefit from an MBA. Just having the credential may give you an edge in getting noticed, and widen the pool of jobs you are considered for. Having some prior work experience is also important.

"When I first put my resume out there, I didn't have the MBA, it was a tough job market and I wasn't getting the calls, the response I wanted," said Ben Adams, 32, of Dover, N.H., who recently completed an online MBA program and has been promoted to marketing manager at the 40-person company at which he works. "I think that having this degree, plus my work experience, will really be significant for me."

"The education is the next step if you really want a ticket to get into that management and corporate environment," added Adams, who hopes to be a CEO or head of marketing at a big company by 10 years from now.

Now, pack your bags.

Companies like their executives to be familiar with different aspects of business, ranging from finance to operations to manufacturing. In today's global environment, the ability to speak foreign languages or work experience in another country is also essential.

So, if you want to move up, be eager to move -- whether it's to Nebraska or China.

Work it out.

In the end, it won't be your book smarts that get you in an executive office. It will be your ability to work with others and accomplish your employer's goals.

Greenhalgh, the Tuck professor, points to Ford Motor Co.'s recent decision to hire aerospace giant Boeing Co.'s leader, Allan Mulally -- even though Mulally had no experience running an auto company.

"This was a very smart person who did a great job at Boeing, who was able to work with the unions," Greehalgh said. "They're hoping he can do the same thing at Ford."

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