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how to become a CEO

How to Become a CEO: Crafting Your Path to the Top Executive Position

In the words of William Shakespeare, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This holds true for Chief Executive Officers (CEO) too. Let’s take three of the world’s most popular CEOs – Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella, and Richard Branson. Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook (now META) in 2004 in his dorm room before dropping out of Harvard. Satya Nadella joined Microsoft in 1992 as an engineer and slowly rose through the ranks to become the company’s CEO. Branson, on the other hand, doesn’t have any college degrees. Today, he owns and controls over 400 companies under the Virgin Group. This justifies why one of the most-searched queries on the internet continues to be, “How to become a CEO?”. While there is no straight path, we can help you carve your own path to becoming a CEO. Read to know more. 

What is a CEO?

A CEO is the highest-ranking executive in a company. CEOs report to the board of directors. Their core responsibilities include maximizing the value of the business, overseeing the strategic direction, engaging with media, and implementing changes for better performance. They must have the best understanding of the company’s employees and capabilities. In most cases, the CEO is elected by the board and its shareholders. They report to the chair and the board, who shareholders appoint. For all practical purposes, the CEO is the captain of the ship and is responsible for steering the company through choppy waters and fair weather. His/her vision becomes the path forward for the company.

What Does a CEO Do?

The role of a CEO in the new normal is continuously changing. Since March 2020, CEOs have been coping with the unprecedented demands of the market. They were forced to make some hard decisions for the company’s welfare. This included employee layoffs, resetting and pivoting the company’s strategic path, sharing vaccine updates, and much more. The CEO is also the face of the company. They are expected to share important updates with the media via their public relations team.

So, apart from managing the company’s strategic processes, operations, media presence, and working closely with the board of directors, CEOs also need to provide encouragement and constant reassurance to their employees to maintain stability. 


How Much Does a CEO Earn Annually?

In most cases, the salary contains a fixed component, and a variable component based on the company’s profits. CEOs also have equity in the company. Also, the salary depends on multiple factors like age, location, industry, experience, stock options (if any), and company. However, here is what CEO salaries around the world look like according to and Payscale

    1. United States: $161,058 annually on average, and $25,000 profit sharing per year 
    2. India: ₹2,989,350 annually, with a bonus component ranging from ₹30,000 to ₹3,000,000.
    3. Brazil: The average salary of a CEO is between R$425,068 and R$1,177,661
    4. Europe: Up to €1,400,000 with a base salary of €681,000 and a bonus of €719,000 gross per year
    5. China: Average annual salary of ¥1,442,608 and excluding a ¥15,000 bonus

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What Skills are Most Important for a CEO?

Before becoming a CEO, one must explore various leadership styles to emerge as a more strategic leader equipped to build and inspire high-impact teams and drive transformation. Due to their highly public position, CEOs need to be very careful about their appearance, tone, and body language too. They need to win the confidence of employees, board members, and the media. CEOs can have an impact on stock value, business reputation, employee morale, company culture, and strategic operations. In most companies, the CEO is at the tip of the hierarchical pyramid. They carry an enormous responsibility and must maintain decorum at all times. 

Also read: 10 Leadership Skills to Include on Your Resume and How to do it Right


How to Become a CEO?

1. Get the Education You Need

Unless you are a founder, getting to the top is a rarity without a relevant degree and Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). Over half the Fortune 100 CEOs have a degree in engineering, accounting, or economics. While brands do not matter as much at the undergraduate level, when it comes to an MBA brands make all the difference. 40% of the Fortune 100 CEOs went to elite universities. The network formed at such top-brass educational institutions is unmatched and so is the ‘brand’ value it adds to your profile as a professional. Emeritus has partnered with some of the top-rated universities in the world to offer executive-level programs, including:

2. Gain Necessary Experience

Having significant work experience before and after the MBA has proven beneficial for most CEOs. Picking the right companies is highly essential not only to gain skills but also to build a good network of peers. Most top-ranking hiring happens with a recommendation; you will very rarely see companies advertise for C-suite positions. Hence, a network of peers and colleagues is an asset you need to develop if you want to become a CEO.

3. Acquire Leadership Skills

Leaders are not created overnight. Years of experience and honing help individuals build better leadership skills. According to Forbes, empathy is the most important skill leaders must possess. The other leadership skills that are commonly spotted would be communication, problem-solving, composure, the ability to think outside the box, and networking. 

Here are the most important skills an aspiring leader should acquire if they wish to become a CEO:

  1. Empathy
  2. Growth mindset
  3. Transparency
  4. Openness to changes
  5. Approachability 
  6. Crisp communication
  7. Executive presence
  8. Decisiveness
  9. Ethics and fairness
  10. Innovation

Check out this program on Emeritus by Kellogg Executive Education: Effective Leadership for Global Change

4. Develop Executive Presence

Not every manager is a leader. A leader is someone who exudes poise, and confidence, and commands respect. Establishing an executive presence in the modern workplace is an art that has been mastered by very few. CEOs are the face of the company and must possess executive presence. 

Check out this program on Emeritus by Wharton Executive Education: Executive Presence and Influence Persuasive Leadership Development

5. Expand Your Influence

Building meaningful relationships and connections is step one when it comes to expanding your influence. CEOs and C-suite leaders network with other business leaders and industry experts to exchange ideas and get advice, like mistakes to avoid or how to resolve a common labor concern. Reinventing the wheel is unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming. 

6. Self-Reflect and Improve Character

Self-reflection is a powerful tool used by leaders to infuse humility into their lives. Often they are on their own at the top of the employee pyramid. Self-reflecting helps them analyze their behavior and actions and helps spot strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth. 

7. Begin to Create Your Vision

A company’s vision can be different from your individual vision. Who are you as a leader? What do you wish to achieve? Begin crafting your vision, every CEO has a strong, achievable vision. Over time your vision comes together with your company’s vision only to become stronger and more impactful. 

Check out this program by Wharton Executive Education: Future of Work: Leading Modern Workplaces

8. Master People and Team Management Skills

A CEO cannot be effective without his team. He needs their trust and support at all times. Mastering people and team management skills will help at every stage and build more trust in your teams.

Check out these programs handcrafted by Cambridge University in association with Emeritus: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion DEI Strategies for Business Impact

Quote CEO: Sara Blakely

9. Meet Other Leaders

Meeting and interacting with great leaders is a wonderful way to pick up new skills, both hard and soft. Learn from their mistakes. Listen carefully to their anecdotes. Add them on LinkedIn and build a meaningful network. All this will come in handy in the future.

What Makes a CEO Successful?

If I asked you to imagine a successful CEO, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Harvard Business Review’s CEO Genome Project embarked on a mission to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs. Here are the four non-stereotypical attributes they found:

  1. They’re decisive. Successful CEOs don’t always wait for the perfect information. They make decisions before it is too late. They believe that a wrong decision is often better than no decision.
  2. Their main goal is to create impact. They understand stakeholders’ priorities and align them around goals to create value. 
  3. For them, mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. Successful CEOs proactively adapt. They look at the big picture and move on quickly. 
  4. They always follow through on commitments – big and small. They deliver results in a reliable fashion, and this is what sets them apart. 

Find out how you rank on these four essential behaviors. Click here to try.

Why is it Difficult to Create a Career Path for a CEO?

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Good CEOs are capable of transforming the landscape. But, creating a career path to become a CEO is not easy. It varies based on companies, industries, markets, and people. 

The journey to becoming a CEO can happen anywhere between five to 20 years depending on the kind of company one wishes to lead. If you are an entrepreneur who got recently funded, then you are a lot closer to becoming your own company’s CEO. On the other hand, becoming the CEO of a well-established company takes time. The board of directors will evaluate your experience, educational background, skills, achievements, reputation, fit, and ability to make a difference. 

According to Harvard Business Review, potential CEOs and C-suite leaders fall into one of three categories below based on their natural abilities:

1. Fixer

As the name suggests, people with this capability look for solutions. They see gaps in systems, processes, structures, vision, and every other aspect of the business. This ability comes naturally to them, sometimes even before they have the authority to make such decisions. 

2. Relationship Maven

All these patterns start emerging very early in one’s career. Being a relationship maven means individuals with this skill have a natural curiosity about the people around them. Over the years, their network grows. Such leaders leverage relationships to sign new deals and collaborate better to result in higher yields. 

3. Passion Player

Those who belong to this category believe in the power of creating impact. The only thing that matters to them is accomplishing something significant. They hire, mentor, and motivate employees to work toward this cause. They are determined individuals with tremendous knowledge and expertise to support their passion.

CEO Quote 3

Resources for Aspiring CEOs

  1. CEO Magazine: Delve deeper into both the professional and personal lives of business leaders via this highly circulated magazine
  2. LinkedIn & Twitter: Follow the five top CEOs for inspiration and trends – Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Ratan Tata, Cheryl Bachelder
  3. Harvard Business Review: Some of the world’s best articles, ideas, advice, and op-ed pieces are available for aspirants from all industries
  4. Strategy+Business Magazine: A magazine that illuminates the complex choices that leaders face and the impact of their decisions.
  5. Forbes: The publication (especially the editorial team) works with the best columnists and contributors to provide high-quality content across a wide range of business topics

At Emeritus we understand that in an increasingly volatile environment where businesses are continually changing, the CEO’s role is also evolving. We are working closely with the world’s top universities to create programs that will equip aspiring business leaders with the skills and knowledge required to successfully navigate this era of uncertainty.

Browse the top-rated online leadership programs offered by Emeritus.

By Manasa Ramakrishnan

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