How to Be a CEO

Two Parts:Making the GradeBeing a Great CEO

Becoming a CEO doesn't happen overnight. CEOs work their way through the ranks and rise to the top thanks to a combination of hard work, perseverance, and traits and qualities that make them a top-notch business leader. Read the steps below to learn about the path to becoming a CEO, and the steps CEOs take to stay successful.

Part 1
Making the Grade

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    Get educated. If you want to be a CEO, you need to perform well in school. Ideally, you should complete both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. Focus your studies in an area that will be relevant to the industry you hope to enter, but keep things general enough that you can be flexible if you don't snag your dream job right out of college.
    • Many CEOs complete an undergraduate degree first, work for several years as an employee, rise through the ranks, and then return to an MBA program to earn a graduate degree. You don't need to put off joining the workforce just because you don't have all the education you want yet.
    • The larger the company you're hoping to one day rise to the top of, the more important it is that you attend (and graduate from) a school that has some cachet attached to its name. Obviously, some CEOs never even graduated college, but by the numbers, your best chance is to have a prestigious name on your degree. Consider Ivy League schools, of course, but don't forget smaller liberal arts colleges with respected business programs, either.
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    Spend extra time learning finances. Nothing helps a CEO make wise decisions for the company quite like a strong base of financial knowledge. While you can study and learn about finance and economics at any stage of your life, your college years are probably the best opportunity you'll ever get. If you aren't majoring in accounting, economics, or finance, take plenty of elective courses in those areas – even consider a minor.
    • Once you're a part of the workforce, take advantage of any and every opportunity your company offers to increase your financial knowledge with seminars, special classes, and other events. A great CEO never stops increasing, refreshing, or honing his or her knowledge.
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    Make connections early. During college, attend business seminars and networking events whenever you can. Apply to internships anywhere that you can show off your leadership skills and willingness to work hard; keep applying until you snag one (or more). Volunteer your time to help with charitable and other events that will allow you to rub shoulders with other future business people. In short, act as though you're already climbing the corporate ladder before you even start.
    • Don't hesitate. It's never too early to start making the right impression on local business and civic leaders. You never know who might notice you and help smooth the way to your first real career job with a good reference or a kind word about you, when the time comes.
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    Shoot for the stars. As soon as you get a job based on your college qualifications (even if you're still in college at the time), treat it like you want to own the whole company. Employees who bring a sense of vitality and seriousness to their jobs are few and far between; be a company booster and a team player, and rest assured, you will be noticed. Accept extra tasks with zeal, and seek them out yourself whenever possible. Do everything you can to show your bosses that you're serious about advancing your professional life.
    • Do your utmost to get in touch with, and on friendly terms with, high-level executives in your business and wherever else you meet them during the course of your career. Observe the way they act and speak. You might even ask one to become a mentor for you. The worst that they can say is “no,” and executives tend to appreciate brashness over propriety anyway. An executive mentorship, if you can get it, is a powerful tool for fast-tracking your career.
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    Stay flexible. It's not talked about too often these days, but raw ambition is a very useful (some might even say vital) trait for a business leader to possess. A part of being ambitious and aggressive about advancing your career is being open to taking paths you weren't expecting to take. At the very least, stay open to the possibility of switching shifts or locations in order to secure an advancement. If you jump at the chance to be a manager in a branch office somewhere far away, you'll probably get the promotion over others who have reservations about it.
    • Once you've been with a company for a year or two, if you feel you're being passed over for advancement, scan job listings regularly and apply to any position that seems like a serious step up. A lot of CEOs started their careers as managers and junior vice presidents for two or three related businesses before becoming the head of their own company.
    • Don't be afraid to get entrepreneurial. CEOs and entrepreneurs share many traits, and a person planning to become one can get a great start by becoming the other. If you see an opportunity to go into business for yourself, and it seems like a better path to the executive level than your current one, don't hesitate to make the change. Cultivating a successful company from the ground up is an impressive distinction on any corporate resume.
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    Join a board. If you can, elect to become a member of the board of directors at a respectable company. This gives you valuable experience you can use to interact with the board at your own company once you become a CEO. It's also an excellent feather in your cap, as nearly half of all CEOs in the United States served as board members at some point previous to becoming CEOs.

Part 2
Being a Great CEO

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    Understand what a CEO does. The CEO of a company isn't necessarily the founder or even the owner; a CEO isn't quite the same thing as an entrepreneur. A CEO isn't a mere bookkeeper or office monkey, though, either. Rather, the CEO's job is to run the company: oversee financial decisions, resolve imbalances, and keep things on track for more profitability each and every year. This means a great CEO is a combination of an ideas person (like an entrepreneur), willing to take risks and think big; and a hands-on person, eagle-eyed in matters of money and human resources, always willing to dig into the details until everything is perfect.
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    Rely on experience. Most CEOs attain their position after many years – sometimes decades – in the same industry, or even at the same company. Once you reach the top, don't forget your roots. Use all that you know about your business (or area of business) to run it as efficiently as possible: differences between written policy and practical “ground rules;” connections who can give you insight into places you're no longer closely connected to; attitudes and beliefs among low-level employees about the business.
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    Lead with vision. To be a truly great CEO, you must exercise control over your company by shaping the workplace environment to be one that has a distinct and palpable culture. In other words, a great leader creates a sense among his or her employees that they are a part of something truly special, something bigger and more significant than any one part of the whole. Your attitude and actions towards your workforce very clearly set the tempo at every level of the company.
    • Demand the world of your workers, but allow them to make mistakes. Show them that the company believes in them enough to let them keep trying until they make it – as long as they are good enough at their jobs to make it in a big way when they do. Encourage productivity by encouraging risk-taking and personal judgment calls. You always have the last word if something is a poor fit for the business.
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    Be clear-cut. As a CEO, it's your job to run the entire business. Though you delegate many of the daily tasks to your subordinates, you're the one with the bird's-eye view who can see the whole pattern of the company as it breathes and changes over time. Bearing that in mind, use what you see and know to communicate your plans and explain your decisions to your workers clearly, plainly, and openly. If they know what your vision for the company is, they'll have a much easier time helping you to realize that vision.
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    Stay connected. Never succumb to the illusion that the CEO lives and works in an ivory tower while the rest of the business goes on below, guided by distant edicts from on high. An effective CEO is always in the thick of things: visiting every department, assisting with any task they are qualified to assist with, speaking to employees and listening to their feedback. A part of your time is necessarily spent at the top, planning ahead and thinking in broad terms, but the rest of your time should be spent in the thick of the action.
    • Feel free to micromanage if you need to show someone the way you'd prefer them to do something. Don't simply berate them or tell them what you're doing wrong; instead, clear them out of the driver's seat and do it yourself, explaining the reasoning of every step and action along the way. A great CEO leads by example, not insult.
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    Embody strategy. Above all else, once you become a CEO, your business is the future of the company. You must be adept at thinking six moves ahead, seeing around the next corner, and guessing what the future will hold. Stay abreast of trends and always think about your company's place in the business world at large. How can you stay king of the hill? If you're not, how can you knock the other schmoe out of the top spot? If these are the questions that help guide your business strategy, you'll be the most effective CEO you can be.


  • Put ethical treatment before emotional outbursts.
  • Be transparent. Consider acting on the opinion of the suggestions and advice (at least in part) of your "lieutenant" staff. This will help to make them part of the assignment and evaluation and they'll reward you with good work and loyalty. The "lieutenants" are the people who work directly for you and show you miracles, so be a leader figure for them and don't be scared of them. A good leader has––and trusts––a good team.

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Categories: Occupations | Leadership and Mentoring