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The 12 Steps to Take to Become a CEO

Learn what a CEO is and how to ascend to one of the highest-ranking positions in your company with our 12 clear steps.

By Brier Cook  •   August 10, 2022  •   7 min read

So you want to be a chief executive officer (CEO)? We get it. As one of the highest-ranking positions within a company, the role of CEO seems like a dream come true. 

What you may not know is that this specific role requires an advanced and diverse set of skills on which you’ll need to work to achieve this level of workplace success. Let’s take a look at the requirements for the CEO role, the steps you can take to move forward, and how you can determine if the position suits your professional goals and interests. 

What is a CEO?

CEOs make major corporate decisions and manage the overall operations and resources of an organization. Oftentimes, the CEO serves as the public face of the company and is the main point of communication between the board and office operations. 

Individuals in this demanding role are often responsible for expanding the company, driving profits, and in the case of a public operation, improving share prices. A company’s performance and profitability is heavily influenced by the CEO as well. 

Become a productive CEO

Become a productive CEO by increasing meeting engagement and productivity with a collaborative agenda. Try using a tool like Fellow!

How to become a CEO 

1Gain experience

There are three traditional pathways to high-level leadership: organizational architect, relationship mavens, and passion players. Organizational architects are able to assemble strong players across business functions and give people challenging goals that will lead to exceptional results. Relationship mavens thrive because they can cultivate relationships that help them yield results others have a difficult time replicating. Passion players are about purpose and ask, “what are we going to accomplish and why are we doing so?” each time they tackle a new project. Start by selecting a pathway and work your way up the corporate ladder. Most future CEOs move into substantial operational roles before getting offered a top spot. 

2Shadow a CEO 

Interact up close with successful managerial talent. Find a CEO who is willing to take you through a day in their life and shadow them as they go about their work. During this time, ask them questions you have about the role, determine what a typical week looks like, and take any advice they’re willing to share. Research the company and prepare questions ahead of time so you’re ready to gain as much knowledge as possible during this time. 

3Learn how to work well with others 

Forbes reports that in a survey of 800 executives, 87 percent believed that personal traits explain the difference between a good and great manager. No one wants to work for a supervisor who doesn’t work well with others. Additionally, a CEO will have the best chance of success if their employees are team players. For these reasons, it’s important to develop the ability to listen actively and respond appropriately to others. Start by engaging in active listening techniques to help build trust and stronger relationships with teammates. When you can work in a group successfully, you’ll develop relationships required for business success. 

4Network with CEOs 

If you want to go somewhere, it’s best to find someone who’s already been there. Pick a local CEO or a CEO in your field who you realistically believe you could add to your network. Then, draft a warm and detailed email or LinkedIn message asking them to meet virtually or in person. Explain that you admire their career path and want to learn more about how they got to the position of CEO. Alternatively, you can head to local networking events and chat with folks in person if you’re able.

5Learn from your past mistakes

If we fail to adapt, we fail to move forward. Don’t let the mistake you made last week prevent you from making next week great. Past mistakes are nothing more than learning opportunities. The best managers implement constructive feedback quickly and with ease. Take on new challenges and increase your abilities and achievement while you learn from mistakes. If you adopt a growth mindset, you’ll know that your abilities and successes can improve with continued resilience, effort, and learning!

6Develop leadership and management skills

Think about the CEO you admire and what skills make them a great leader. Then, set tangible goals that will help you develop similar skills. For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook is known for being bold, trustworthy, self-assured, and collaborative, and for taking risks. He’s also known for developing and executing an excellent management strategy. If you want to be like Cook, you can take on new work projects that require teamwork, open communication, and risk. Some other common skills CEOs should have that you should develop on include approachability, a growth mindset, transparency, decisiveness, and strong decision-making.  

7Master the art of one-on-ones 

You’ll be having many one-on-ones as a CEO. It will be during these meetings that you’ll develop important relationships with the members of your team. Start working on your one-on-one skills now by meeting with your direct reports on a regular basis to build a culture of trust. If you’re not quite at the management level yet, take note of what you like about your own one-on-ones with your supervisor and read up on one-on-one best practices. Don’t know where to start? Check out our definitive guide to one-on-ones: the most misunderstood yet powerful tool for managers. 

Plus, use this free meeting agenda template to level up your next one-on-ones:

8Set and track realistic goals 

Becoming a CEO may sound like a lofty and unachievable goal, but what if you establish short- and long-term, realistic objectives that will help you get one step closer to your dreams? Use objectives and key results (OKRs) by defining clear goals that specify what you want to accomplish (objectives) and then breaking each goal down into actionable key results. Once you decide on a goal, create a list of action items that will help you progress towards the objective. Meet with a mentor, your manager, or an accountability buddy often to keep track of your progress. The best part is that you can keep track of action items, OKRs, and meeting notes in Fellow!

9Educate yourself

According to a 2015 Forbes article, the CEOs of over half of Fortune 100 companies have a degree in business, economics, or accounting. Just under 30 percent have a science or engineering degree, and about 15 percent studied law at the university level. That being said, the chances of making it to the top of a company without a degree are nearly non-existent unless you found your own company. Your best shot is to pursue an undergraduate degree in one of these fields and then obtain a Master of Business Administration. If you have the option, head to a top school with an excellent brand and network. Remember that top executives are committed to continuous learning, so ensure that you’re ready to grow at an exceptionally fast pace if you plan to rise to the top. 

10Take on more responsibility

You need to gain plenty of real-world experience if you plan to advance towards your CEO aspirations. Reach for your goals by seeking challenging experiences while maintaining quality work. Strive to develop new abilities and strengths by taking advantage of new opportunities at work and in other areas of your life. You should also aim to broaden your knowledge base. For example, you can use your business expertise to help a local company restructure and become financially stable if you’re looking to gain new skills outside of your current role. 

11Practice strategic thinking 

Strategic thinking skills are developed when you use critical thinking to solve complex challenges and develop a plan for the future. All CEOs are strategic thinkers, so aim to put yourself in situations where you’ll have the opportunities to practice this skill. Strategic thinkers are also excellent communicators, effective planners, and talented problem solvers. Gain these skills by offering compelling ideas and determining a course of action each time an issue arises at work—you can do so by asking strategic questions often, gathering as much information as possible before making decisions, and remaining open-minded at all times. 

12Understand how to give and receive effective feedback 

Giving and receiving feedback is the key to ascension in the workplace. If you’re able to take the feedback you regularly receive and use it to expand your skill set and become a better employee and leader, you’ll be one step ahead of the rest. Practice giving feedback regularly too. If you plan to lead a company someday, you’ll have to have both challenging conversations and positive ones often. You can start by using Fellow to build a culture of continuous feedback within your team. 

Parting advice

If you’re an aspiring CEO, follow these steps to take strides towards your goals. Remember that the role isn’t the only destination—create impact in whatever you do, and set goals that will help you excel as you grow. If you commit yourself to excellence and impact, you’re bound to get noticed for your contributions. Above all else, remind yourself that leadership is about relationships more so than titles, positions, or time spent in office.

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