The Path to Becoming a CEO

By Ian Barratt

One of my first mentors, when I became Chief Executive of a professional institute, remarked that “All the skills that get you to CEO are precisely the skills that you do not need once you get there”

It seemed a strange comment at first, but one that has stuck with me ever since. But, surely, the move to become a CEO is just part of career progression, building on the foundations laid in previous roles? But, as I review my career and my work with CEOs in membership bodies, it continues to ring true. So what makes the role so different? What are the skills that set it apart?  

Context is important here

All CEOs operate in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty. The reality is that they are also the people that members, staff, customers, clients, and stakeholders expect to deliver clarity of purpose and results. Past mentors, some CEOs in large organisations, private and public, have said such things as: 

  • The role of the CEO is to manage ambiguity.
  • The people you need to talk to are often the people you cannot talk to.
  • Who can I talk to without the conversation becoming another problem? 
  • The role of the CEO is not to have all the answers but to have all the right questions. 

The key thing that emerged for me in that first role was the emotional, rather than the intellectual challenge, perhaps triggered by the inherent loneliness of the position. 

So what keeps CEOs in membership organisations going in such circumstances?

In my own experience in a range of organisational types, it is a blend of professional pride, loyalty and an old-fashioned refusal to give up. I have, on occasion, questioned why I remained with an organisation, whether as an employee or consultant. That question went straight to the heart of what makes me, as a professional manager and leader, tick.  

To answer the question at the top of this piece, I see the progress to CEO as very much a ‘jolt’. Like the financial industry warning, “Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results”, the skills in previous roles may help but may not be the ones crucial for success as a CEO. The skills that need to be developed or, at the very least, enhanced are:

  • Developing trust 
  • Listening / receptiveness 
  • Painting the vision of new possibilities 
  • Political judgment, being right may not be enough 
  • Managing ambiguity and bringing clarity 
  • Emotional resilience 
  • Decision-making 

These are personal rather than technical attributes and ones that often seem to be missing when reading job descriptions. If you are thinking of a CEO role for the first time, will you avoid the ‘jolt’? 

Written by: Ian Barratt, Principal Consultant and Director