Article by Marten Mickos, CEO and co-founder of HackerOne
The first step towards a CEO role is taking responsibility for more than is expected. Do a little more, a little better, a little more often, and you are on the right path. The CEO job is about delivering business results, and this happens only if you take responsibility. A challenging but vital part of taking responsibility is making difficult or unpopular decisions. The more you can shoulder, the readier you are for a leadership role. Once you are a CEO, you will realise that you can never say “that’s not my problem”. The sooner you learn to always look for solutions, no matter whose problem it is, the faster you are evolving towards the CEO role.
Reid Hoffman wrote a great book called “The Start-up of You”. This book helps you accelerate your career and take control of your future – no matter your profession. It is a great read for anyone and especially for those with leadership and CEO ambitions.
CEOs lead people. They give people goals and mandates and then help them succeed. In order to become a great CEO, you must learn to make other people successful. That is the key to leadership. You make people successful by listening to and supporting them, providing autonomy, challenging them, giving them guidance and direction and occasionally by issuing direct orders. A good leader has a wide toolkit. They treat all employees the same, yet lead each one in a unique and individualized way.
To learn leadership, start by making the decision to become a leader. Then volunteer to lead whenever you have the chance. This can be both outside of and at work. A committee is appointed or a project is started. You can volunteer to lead that group. Someone leaves the company or there is a new hire. Again there is an opportunity to step up as a leader, first temporarily and over time for permanent leadership roles.
When you take more responsibility than most, willingly assume leadership roles and handle them well, you are on a path to becoming an executive and ultimately CEO. You also need stamina. A CEO is always on duty and must never lose confidence, direction or composure. That’s why they need physical and psychological stamina. A certain calmness in the face of adversity also does not hurt. CEOs need to have more energy and tenacity than most.
It is commonly thought that stamina is given and can’t be improved. That’s a fallacy. By training yourself physically and mentally, you can make huge improvements in your stamina. Start today! Test your limits, and learn how you can make yourself more resilient. You need to find the balance between pushing yourself beyond your current limits, yet accepting yourself exactly as you are and forgiving yourself for your weaknesses. You cannot lead others if you are not at ease with yourself.
When it comes to business skills, a CEO will ultimately be expected to have a good grasp of every aspect of the company. But there are two concrete skills that stand out as significantly more important for a new CEO:
- Selling, i.e. the ability to get others on board with an idea
- Product strategy, i.e. deep understanding of how the product delivers value to customers
A CEO is always trying to get others to jump on the bandwagon. The selling skill is needed when hiring people, raising capital, selling to customers, and getting employees to commit to a new goal. If you are currently not in a role where your job is to influence and convince other people, make sure that you will soon take on such a job. You must learn to sell.
No matter how many great innovators a company may employ, the CEO must fully understand the value proposition and the product strategy. Working in product management, sales engineering and customer success functions prepares you for this. Many great business executives will not be promoted to CEOs because they lack the ability to formulate and drive a product strategy. In a successful company, the CEO is in essence the most senior product manager. Look for opportunities to participate in product strategy formulation.
There is much more to learn for someone aspiring to be a CEO. But the 5 things we have mentioned in this blog post are the most essential characteristics. In summary, great CEOs
- take full responsibility for results
- are good leaders
- have stamina
- know how to get people to join the bandwagon
- understand the value prop of the product on a deep level
Enjoy your career journey towards becoming a Chief Executive Officer – the person who has the ultimate responsibility for delivering business results.
There is a chronic shortage of great CEOs as it is. The world needs many more new startups and they require great CEOs too. The opportunity for you is immense. There is a place for you one day as CEO, empowering others and making a positive change in the world.