CEO Advancement: Don’t Buy the Old Formula

Christian Stadler’s March 12th article, How to Become a CEO, advocates the conventional, old-school route to the top job: Study engineering or finance, go to a top B-school, work for a top consulting company, have a top boss, work for a top company, yada yada.

This is typical of old and tired articles written by educators or consulting gurus, equipped with an academic air. They do a fine job of talking the talk by looking backwards after studying how others used to do things and reporting on it like it’s gospel. Why should you be shut out from advancement because you don’t have the good fortune to have a pedigree and an old boys’ network?

Reading his piece, I was reminded of the old Rodney Dangerfield comedy, Back to School, where he confronts a particularly pompous business professor advocating ivory tower theories.



Don’t buy into it! There’s more than one road to get to the top. Here’s another view from someone who has walked the walk.

It’s tough out there. These days, conventional, “peacetime” preparation for the top job is ill-suited for the combat-like circumstances that happen all the time. Last year set a six-year record for CEO turnover. Just ask the boards of JC Penney, Target, AMD, eBay, McDonald’s, Mattel, Credit Suisse, over 100 other Fortune 500 firms and +1300 others that replaced their CEOs what CEO credentials they really want. You’ll likely hear much less about convention and much more about the ability to lead through difficulty. Here’s my premise.

Disruption, that point when something goes awry, creates 10X the opportunity to advance—IF you have the guts and the know-how. Consider tackling an assignment that has problems or issues. Fewer will dare to take on the challenge. You can set yourself apart and become the “go-to” person for advancement. Like Shakespeare said, “When the sea was calm, all boats alike show’d mastership at floating.” (Act IV, Coriolanus). In which boat would you prefer to sail? The one that’s been tested by adversity, of course! Become the tested ship.

This was the course I sailed, without the engineering degree, the B-school, and most of what Stadler describes as the path to take. Yet I’ve been a science and technology CEO (public, private, IPO) for a half dozen companies in the varying stages of growth, maturity, trouble, and renewal and have served on the board of two dozen firms. I applied what I learned to venture capital and private equity and presided over $5 billion of additional value.

I’ve put my findings into a practical guide (a “how-to” handbook to advance your career) titled All Hands on Deck: Navigating Your Team Through Crises, Getting Your Organization Unstuck and Emerging Victorious. Set yourself up to advance well ahead of those with conventional credentials.

Career Press will be releasing the book in June.