How To Get Your First Job As CEO


By Jas Singh

I have had the privilege to work with some great executives over the years. The best part of my job is meeting such a diverse group of people. And seeing how they have become successful.

Some people are great with numbers. Others have an affinity for marketing. A few are great evangelists. Over years they reach the top of their so called verticals – CFO, CMO, CTO and so on.

Yet funnily enough, a big majority of the people I speak to mention how difficult it is to overcome the final hurdle – the title of CEO. The so called pinnacle of the corporate world and the captain of the ship.

The reasons for this are always the same. Either the current CEO is not going anywhere (hence there is no opportunity in your current company) or any company that is recruiting for a CEO wants someone with previous experience in that position.

Would be CEO candidates become trapped.

Yet, thousands of first time CEO’s are appointed every year so there is a way. Just like anything else in life you need to understand the process and build a plan.

Here are some ways I’ve experienced first time CEO’s have landed their first big job.

1) Play the waiting game – if it is worth it

By far the most common route to becoming a CEO is being promoted within your existing firm. A loyal number 2 (or 3,4,5 etc) being given the chance to fill the boots of their predecessor. Great examples of this in recent times are Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer.

Sounds pretty straight forward. But with some pretty big obstacles.

Firstly, CEO opportunities don’t really come up very often. Especially if the current CEO has no plans to retire soon, is tied in heavily with stock or is doing a great job. Secondly when the vacancy arises no doubt there will be big competition – certain companies can even historically prefer particular types of backgrounds (for example banking CEO’s are nearly always ex-front office people) so what happens if your experience simply doesn’t fit?

And what if there is no succession plan at all? All companies should have a succession plan but many don’t – how do you know will you even be considered at all? You can’t just leave it to luck.

Executives wanting to step up to CEO level must examine and assess all factors carefully to determine whether playing the waiting game is worthwhile.

2) Network with Investors

CEO’s are nearly always appointed by boards and shareholders so the next best place to go when looking for your first CEO role is the investor community.

Investors are the life blood of the business world. Although relatively low profile, a simple look at the investment holdings of the various fund and private equity companies around the world shows how powerful they are.

Investment companies are relatively small in terms of the number of people employed. Often a single person can be the sole representative for an entire business in it’s portfolio.

Investors obviously have a strong interest in appointing the right CEO so networking with this community can ensure candidates are considered when these rare opportunities arise.

3) Build strong relationships with reputable search firms

Hiring a new CEO is the biggest recruitment decision a company will often make and so they will often use a search firm to manage the process.

Rather than wait for a call, candidates should pro-actively network with these search firms in advance so they can be considered well ahead of time. Search firm reputations are often at risk when hiring for such a key position so placing someone they know well and trust beforehand can be key.

However it’s key that candidates network with the right search firms who can demonstrate a track record of placing CEO’s. Increasingly, this is not necessarily the bigger companies but often also more boutique search organisations that are commonly run by ex-practitioners from industry with strong and influential networks.

Working with those who can influence and reputable is critical for finding a job at CEO level.

4) Build your personal brand

The best CEO’s realise that first and foremost they are the identity of the company. A leader, whose job it is to represent the company and what it stands for, spread the vision and inspire those who work there.

I’ve still to come across a company that will hire a CEO who ticks every box but who lacks inspiration. In fact often inspiration more than makes up for any shortcomings they may have.

The greatest leaders are continuously building their personal brand. In truth, it’s the only thing in business that they they truly own. They continuously participate in various activities – from media appearances, seminars, thought leadership events and nowadays social media and blogging.

By doing this they place themselves continuously in the shop window and their identity is there for all to see.

5) Take risk

So you’ve tried all the above and still no luck. After years of graft and dedication you are desperate for that first big CEO job. What do you do?

The most common way for senior executives to land their first CEO job outside their own company is to take risk – try something different.

These risks can come in all forms. It could be working for a start-up. Or perhaps trying to rescue a company that everyone believes is beyond the point of repair. Maybe even relocating, trying a new industry or working for a much smaller business.

Yet from experience, this risk needs to be calculated. CEO’s are often judged purely on their track record of success and a single failed opportunity can be a big blemish on the resume. Executives need to dig deep when qualifying all opportunities to get the full picture – and more importantly to see if their skill set can add genuine value depending on the situation.


After years of hard work and dedication executives often deserve the opportunity to try running the show.

Yet the search for such a CEO opportunity requires planning, effort and careful consideration.

Would you like to be a CEO one day?

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