You may be closer to the beginning of your career than the pinnacle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t think about the future. And if you aspire to be a CEO someday, you may need a particular set of skills.
“One of the most empowering data points from our research is that 70% of current CEOs, early on in their careers, actually didn’t have concrete goals to get to the top,” says Elena Botelho, partner at Chicago-based leadership advisory firm ghSmart and coauthor of The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders. She and coauthor Kim Powell analyzed more than 2,600 leaders drawn from a database of more than 17,000 CEOs and C-suite executives for the book. They found that top-level executives have certain traits that make them successful.
But whether or not you know you want to take the helm someday, developing the skills necessary is going to help you advance in your career, says Halelly Azulay, founder of Los Angeles-based leadership development firm TalentGrow, LLC and author of Employee Development on a Shoestring. “Because people are watching,” she says, “the minute you are a bleep on someone’s radar is the minute they begin to perceive your brand.”
So what are the skills and attributes that will help you take your seat in the C-suite? Three experts shared their recommendations on those aspiring leaders need to develop.
The ability to take calculated risks—and live with the potential fallout—is important for rising leaders. “Not taking risks is the most dangerous thing to do on the way to the top,” Botelho says. But that doesn’t mean being reckless. In order to grow, you need to take on stretch assignments and try new approaches to develop your skills.
That may include leaving behind a “safe” job and moving into new roles with new companies, says executive coach Rhett Power, author of The Entrepreneur’s Book of Actions: Essential Daily Exercises and Habits for Becoming Wealthier, Smarter and More Successful. “If you feel like you’re not growing, look at organizations where you know you can learn something valuable. The position inside your company, outside your company, don’t be afraid to make the move so that you can grow professionally if you feel like you’re stuck,” he says.
Effective CEOs can see beyond the immediate needs and urgent matters and keep long-term goals and aspirations in mind, Azulay says. “When you’re a CEO, you can no longer be in the weeds. You must be at the helm of the ship looking out in the horizon, looking around,” she says. That means constantly staying abreast of what is happening in your industry, thinking about trends and developments, and analyzing what they mean for the future of your organization.
Such big-picture thinking is something anyone can practice, she says. Look at your own and other industries for clues about what the future holds. The more you can broaden your exposure to various content and context related to what you do, and the factors, trends, changes and circumstances that affect your industry or the economy overall, the more you can connect the dots and see things others don’t, she says.
Reliability And Results Orientation
One of the four behaviors leaders share according to Botelho’s research is reliability. In other words: When you say you’ll do something, you do it. Most people overestimate how dependable they are in the eyes of others. Since reliability is an essential component of trust, such a misalignment can be a problem in ascending to a leadership role. “Demonstrating reliability doubles your chances at getting the top job, and it improves your odds of success in the top job, by [approximately] 15 times,” she says.
A focus on results is a component of reliability. Power points to results orientation as an essential skill for a CEO to have. When you’re given a task, you take it on with energy and enthusiasm, finding solutions to problems when they arise. Those around you are confident that you’ll see through your responsibilities.
CEOs must be able to pivot and adjust to change, Botelho says. This is an area where people often assume they’re weaker than they are, according to the research done for her book, she says. Highly adaptable leaders don’t hide from reality. They face what’s happening and use well-honed decision-making skills to make the best choices in any given situation, she says.
Engaging For Impact
Being able to make an impression and inspire people to see a vision is another common attribute of effective CEOs, Botelho says. This is another area where people make assumptions that may not be correct, she says. Search committees or recruiters may worry about the power of introverts or those who don’t have overly exuberant styles in the CEO role. It’s not about that, she says.
“We get asked questions—’Well, geez, how is he going to build followers if he’s an introvert?’—There’s an assumption that you need something of an innate charisma, and CEOs are made of some special stuff that allows them to be a Pied Piper,” she says. But her team’s data shows that deliberate practices such as clear communication, positive body language, and other factors matter more in how the CEO engages with others.
Emotional intelligence is a key part of your impact as a leader as well, Power says. Being able to “read” people and respond appropriately to them will make a difference in how they respond to you.
Of course, individual CEOs have varied additional skills, but observing common attributes and strengths and developing them goes a long way toward preparing yourself to be chosen for a leadership role, Azulay says. Interact with and surround yourself with people who have these qualities to help develop them in yourself, she says.