When, at age 24, I told my boss (somewhat tongue in cheek) that I wanted to become a CEO, he nearly fell off his chair. It was 1974; I was a software developer working for IBM. At that time, lowly engineers were not expected to aspire to roles reserved for successful salespeople.
But my boss’ guidance helped me take a hard look at myself and make becoming the CEO a real objective. I eventually achieved my goal 30 years later at Business Objects, but it took a lot of careful planning, as well as focus and determination.
Today, the path to becoming a CEO can look very different, particularly within tech and internet startups. But the skills required to be an effective leader are the same as ever. These skills typically take a life of experience to acquire, but there are ways to overcome that time challenge. Here are three things you should do to qualify as CEO material, even if you are short on life experience — but still big on energy and bold ideas:
Build a team to compensate for your shortcomings
Even a seasoned executive needs a sounding board of people who can offer guidance, particularly for areas that fall outside his or her core expertise. For young leaders, this is essential, to avoid serious mistakes. Lack of experience can lead to very painful consequences: hiring the wrong people, spending too much money, getting stuck with bad contract terms, or falling afoul of the law — to name just a few.
Consider the example of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook: He drives the products, while she is the more business-oriented person. They complement each other with their skills, and work together to achieve a common goal of building a successful company. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (both 25 years old when they founded the company) brought in a more experienced Eric Schmidt so that they could gain management depth before taking over in their own right.
When building your leadership team, then, don’t look for people who are exactly like you. Find those who can round you out and challenge you to grow.
Use the power of positive — and negative — thinking
If you are launching a business when you are still in your 20s — without scars from past challenges — you will have some advantages and many disadvantages.
The biggest disadvantage is the lack of a track record, which a potential investor might want to use to evaluate your probability of success. This can be overcome only by spending many hours selling your idea to as many people as will listen to it. In the venture capital universe, Bay Area investors have traditionally been the most willing to take a gamble on an untried team. Another potentially helpful strategy is to hire a more seasoned person to front the fund-raising, but take care not to lose control of the business in the process.
An interesting advantage you may have as a young leader, meanwhile, is the likelihood that you probably do not know what is not possible; yet, you will attempt to do it anyway. This might result in a breakthrough that a more experienced person might miss due to a past negative experience. And that would be wonderful. But real breakthroughs are relatively rare. Most progress is incremental, and to attain incremental success, tapping into the experience of previous successes and failures can be very helpful.
Leaders need to be transparent, and humble when humility is appropriate (which is very often). In fact, intellectual humility — the ability to step back and embrace the better ideas of others — is, for Google (to name one leading company) a more important hiring criterion than credentials. Unfortunately, humility is often perceived as a weakness, when in fact it is one of the greatest strengths a leader can possess.
Humble people listen to and learn from others. They take the backseat when someone more able than themselves is available to solve a problem. They give credit where credit is due. They are less prone to hubris when things go really well. They constantly question their own views and motivation to ensure that they are truly aligned with the desired business outcome. All of these values are essential to build a high-performance organization. But of course business is all about winning.
Being humble is fine, but a leader also must be willing to lead to victory.
So, my advice is to practice humility — just don’t forget to win.
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