How to become a CEO: What makes a great chief executive?

By Robert Half 8th May 2017

Becoming a great chief executive officer (CEO) is one of the ultimate goals in business and career progression. Many ambitious professionals want to know how to be a CEO as they are the highest ranking of all directors, the individuals who take charge of the executive team and have greatest power and influence in the boardroom. The role of the CEO differs from organisation to organisation, according to the unique demands of each business and the structure at board level. But typically, tasks include creating and implementing the vision, mission, and overall direction of the business, and directing and evaluating the work of other executives. CEOs are also responsible for formulating the strategic plan, representing the organisation in business and the media, and getting everyone pulling in the same direction.

What does it take to be a CEO?

If you have aspirations of business leadership, you will require a considerable amount of intelligence, focus, determination and flair for business. You will need to learn how to be a CEO and what steps to take to get there. The career pyramid gets very narrow at the top, and this means there will be no shortage of suitable candidates with management skills interested in any CEO vacancy. Typically, a great chief executives has an educational background, wide and varied experience in business, and a proven track record of success. As such, CEOs are typically older professionals - individuals who have acquired knowledge, wisdom and sound judgement over time, and often great chief executives work their way up through career progression. In terms of personal qualities, CEOs need to be clear communicators who are capable of both giving direction and accepting expert opinion. They must be energetic, calm under pressure and ever-objective, while having the creative ideas needed to give the business an advantage over its competitors.

What does the typical CEO look like?

Anyone with the requisite skills and experience has the opportunity to become a great chief executive, although it appears some candidates may have an advantage over others. Latest research from our FTSE 100 CEO Tracker has revealed a series of trends relating to career direction, age, gender, education, nationality and professional background. There has been an increasing trend for CEOs to be promoted from within the organisation, showing the importance of knowledge and exposure to the specific industry.

While education can be a fundamental stepping stone to reaching the top job, it is becoming less prevalent than in previous years. Of current top level executives, just shy of a quarter have an MBA, while a small handful have PhDs. When looking at the average characteristics of these company leaders, these CEOs are typically aged 55 and above and male, and with a significant tenure.

While the profile of a FTSE 100 CEO may not represent all executive-level appointments, these individuals characterise the best of the best.

View our latest findings from the Robert Half FTSE 100 CEO Tracker

What are your chances of being selected?

Charlie Grubb, UK managing director of Robert Half Executive Search, said the UK is seeing a gradual evolution in the make-up of its top bosses, particularly as the economy shows signs of improvement. This means people from a range of different backgrounds have a greater chance of being appointed a CEO. However, the rate of progress is perhaps slower than it should be, with many organisations continuing to look for the 'typical candidate'.

So in many regards, the 'old guard' still holds sway. This means that middle-aged professionals with a background in accountancy and finance are more likely than other candidates to become a CEO. The skills and experience they possess mean they will always be considered worthy candidates by organisations, and in many cases, rightly so. Other individuals need to ensure they make their own case for selection as strong as possible, by gaining the required skills and experience.

Ultimately, when it comes to CEO job-hunting, talent should shine through. Grubb said organisations should always be looking for the best people, regardless of their background, profile or status. He claimed that diversity at board level can add real value to organisation, as different individuals help create stronger teams. "We look forward to the day when diversity at the highest levels stops being a discussion item and becomes a reality," Charlie Grubb added.

If you are aspiring to the top position of any organisation, you’ll be pleased to know that there is no one-way to get there.


Robert Half Executive Search specialises in the search for and placement of executive leadership talent across a broad spectrum of function areas and industry sectors. Contact us today for a confidential conversation about your next C-suite move.

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