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There are essentially 3 paths to becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company:

  • Start a company and become successful enough to join the Fortune 500 (Jeff Bezos at Amazon)
  • Grow and promote within a Fortune 500 company and eventually earn the role of CEO (Most CEOs enter the company in a leadership role such as Vice President, and are appointed internally. There are CEOs who have spent most of their careers in a single organization, but it is less common. Tim Cook at Apple)
  • Successfully run another non-fortune 500 company or be in a leadership/executive role at another large company and hired by a Fortune 500 company (Marissa Mayer at Yahoo), from a statistical perspective your best opportunity will be if you’re a white male. Beyond that there are some basic elements that increase the likelihood (Yes there are people who do not have this so please do not point that out, I am talking about the greatest chance based on existing CEO profiles).
  • Bachelors Degree and the percentage increases based on quality of school (Harvard, Stanford, Pennsylvania, and Columbia representing the largest portion of CEOs today)
  • Advanced degrees including MBA / JD and others which also increases based on quality of school (Harvard, Pennsylvania, Stanford, University of Chicago, Northwestern representing the largest portion of CEOs today) After you have knocked out the basic profile of being educated at a top tier university, earned an advanced degree, and of course were born Caucasian/male then there are some key professional and career factors.
  • Strong financial background / acumen (This can be developed in earlier career roles, through education, etc.)
  • Operations leader (Most CEOs come from an operating role including Chief Operating Officer, nearly 75% according to some sources )
  • Serving on the boards of public companies (This provides a form of professional development and mentorship for newer executives) – This can also be filed under your “knowing a lot of people” question. CEOs spend 10-15 years in a leadership role (VP, COO, etc.) before becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Typical age will be roughly 50, just to give a perspective of experience level. This will vary greatly by industry. For example tech companies will typically have a younger CEO such as Larry  of Google compared to older organizations in the manufacturing and financial fields, such as Jeff Immelt (57) of GE.
Luck and timing are both crucially important to obtaining a CEO role. For example, Tim Cook who I mentioned earlier was the leader of one of the strongest supply chain networks in the business. He was a strong leader for a major component of the Apple business while being the #2 to an extremely well known and innovative leader in Steve Jobs. Apple had the groundwork laid as an innovator and displayed extreme financial success from both revenue/margin and shareholder value. This setup the perfect scenario to transition a disciplined (less volatile) leader such as Cook to run a fiscally mature company.
What does it take? You will see a variety of comments in this thread I’m sure of CEOs who are disconnected, unethical, incapable, and possibly incompetent. I think moments of this are true because after all they’re human beings. They aren’t fundamentally different than you and I. They have thoughts, opinions, ideas, and make mistakes. In discussing just the CEO position I think there are some key elements that large organizations are searching for which include:
  • Leadership – The ability to influence a team and unite them to support a common goal
  • Strategy / Vision – Creating a company direction that is compelling for employees, customers, and shareholders. The mission statement of a company. For example, Amazon’s vision is to be “earth’s most customer centric company.”
  • Charisma / Poise – More than just influencing, can you inspire people? Read some stories about the culture at Amazon, Apple, and Zappos and their employees undying loyalty to the brand. Yes there are many bad stories as well. I know I am short changing some of the historically great companies such as IBM / GE which have great cultural elements, but there seems to be more anecdotal stories readily available about the newer tech companies.
  • Innovation / Foresight – The ability to see the next evolution of your industry or a future business model that will provide you a competitive advantage. IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative that lends its brain/data power to finding government solutions for big problems. Apple started making cell phones and then created a massive electronic global media marketplace in iTunes. Amazon use to sell books and has expanded to selling everything. Costco pays employees more, has a maximum markup and earns major component of its profits through a membership fee.
The selection process will vary based on company, cultural values of that company, and of course the timing or need. Some companies will have the luxury of long term succession planning (GE or GM), some companies will need to make a change due to poor financial results and need of a turnaround effort (JC Penny, Sears, EA), and others will have some change more aggressively forced by large shareholders (Yahoo, P&G).


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