What does it take to be a CEO? We analyse data from current CEOs!

It’s the ultimate goal for many people to climb the career ladder, and even reach the position of a CEO – the highest ranking executive officer of a company, and widely regarded as the leading visionary, setting the strategy and future direction of the business.

While the journey toward becoming a company’s CEO might not be for everyone or without challenges, many ambitious professionals still aspire, and want to know how to become a CEO. The inaugural Robert Half CEO Tracker, which profiled the background of the ASX 200-listed CEOs, has identified the commonalities they share and the steps ambitious professionals can take to set themselves on the right pathway to C-suite success.

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For those aspiring to become a CEO, you will require a considerable amount of intelligence, focus, determination and flair for business. The career pyramid becomes very narrow at the top, meaning there is generally no shortage of suitable candidates with management skills interested in CEO vacancies. Chances of becoming CEO are greater in New South Wales and Victoria as 47% of ASX 200-listed CEOs are based in the Sydney metro area and 27% are based in the Melbourne metro area.

The DNA of the modern CEO continues to evolve as businesses operate in an increasingly competitive and changing environment. A strong standout feature of our analysis of the ASX 200-listed CEOs is their background in financial leadership and commercial acumen. Business leaders with strong financial capabilities are highly valued as they can easily interpret the financial ramifications of business decisions, adding a practical, financial perspective to a strategic one, emphasising the value of a strong understanding of the ‘numbers’ underpinning any organisation.

Chief executives typically have a strong educational background, with wide and varied experience in business, plus a proven track record of success. Unsurprisingly, having a tertiary education is a characteristic most CEOs share. More than eight in 10 (82%) have an undergraduate degree and more than half (54%) have – in addition to an undergraduate degree – postgraduate qualifications, with little over one in five (22%) having completed an MBA.

As such, CEOs are predominantly professionals who have acquired knowledge and sound judgement over time. Loyalty has its rewards as many have worked their way up to the top job through the company – in fact, 62% of ASX 200-listed CEOs were promoted internally, highlighting succession planning as a top priority for companies looking to replace senior leaders.

For those looking to hone their personal attributes, CEOs need to be clear communicators who are capable of both giving direction and accepting expert opinion. And as with all leadership positions, exceptional people skills are essential. They must be energetic, calm under pressure and ever-objective, while having the creative ideas needed to give the business an advantage over its competitors.

What are your chances of becoming CEO?

Naturally, it takes a very driven individual to become CEO – of any type of company. As organisations operate in increasingly uncertain times, they need to proactively identify the right talent for the top job.

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Anyone with the requisite skills and experience has the opportunity to become a great chief executive, although it appears some candidates may have an advantage over others.

Becoming a CEO calls for confidence, leadership and strong communication skills while being able to motivate and inspire a broad range of employees. It is a position that needs a willingness to adopt fresh ideas, embrace new technologies and responsibly explore opportunities to achieve sustainable company growth.

Before you decide whether you want to pursue the pathway of a CEO, it’s important to establish your ability to thrive under pressure, juggle multiple demands, grasp new concepts quickly, and recognise potential opportunities that will contribute to a company’s bottom line. And beyond the qualities of a CEO, you need to ensure that you make your own case for selection as strong as possible.

With the advancement of automation, digital transformation, regulatory frameworks, and globalisation, companies need leaders who can not only meet business goals, but also successfully take advantage of these changes, whilst also possessing the strong financial acumen in order to keep their organisation afloat during continuously fluctuating economic conditions.

Ultimately, when it comes to knowing how to become a CEO – there is no singular pathway. Every professional striving to reach the pinnacle of their career needs to define their own journey to success.

Here are four key takeaways Australia’s corporate climbers should pay attention to if they want to make it to the top:

  • Know your way around a balance sheet: Half of all current ASX 200 CEOs have held prior roles in finance, financial services or accounting. If you’re not regularly reviewing your financial know-how, chances are you’re not going to be considered for the top job. While tech and digital skills are increasingly in demand, having a firm grasp on how to work your way around the financial aspects of a business is a key skill.
  • Get out of your comfort zone: It really does pay to be well travelled, with 59% of current ASX 200 CEOs having international work experience. Companies recognise the value of professionals with a broad understanding of cultural and geographical influences that can impact business operations. Don’t get tied down, take that overseas opportunity and learn from it!
  • Never stop learning: It may seem obvious, but successful CEOs are always looking to enhance their knowledge. More than 8 in 10 (82%) have an undergraduate degree, and more than half have additional postgraduate qualifications. If you want to run a forward-thinking business you’ve got to keep forwarding your learning.
  • Loyalty pays off:62% of current ASX 200 CEOs were promoted to the top internally. Businesses always look favourably on those who commit to consistently demonstrate their worth, with the average tenure before promotion being eight years. Just make sure the company you work for has the internal steps for you to move up.

Robert Half Executive Search specialises in the search for and placement of executive leadership talent across a broad spectrum of function areas and industry sectors.