Cultivating future leaders: The journey from graduate to CEO

4 minute read

Becoming a CEO is not a decoration but it is a big responsibility. It requires consistent and persistent efforts with a vision and passion to serve the people to reach this highest rank, says professor MS Rao

MS Rao

Illustration of a graduate with business icons behind

The chief executive officer (CEO) is the highest rank in any organization and leads all functions of an organization including human resources, production, operations, marketing and finance; and coordinates all stakeholders including employees, customers, shareholders and financial institutions, and also reports to the board of directors of a company. It is a highly challenging role that invites both bouquets and brickbats. When everything goes well it is the stakeholders who take the fame and when something goes wrong it is the CEOs who take the blame. But it is worth taking up this position to see highs and lows in professional life and, above all, to make a difference to the organizations. 

CEO is the tipping point every executive aspires to reach. The road to touching this tipping point is not an easy one. If there is proper planning in the early stage of a career and with the right guidance and passion anyone can reach this highest position. Management graduates asked me whether business schools prepare students as leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs. 

What business schools don’t teach?

There are many things business schools cannot teach because of several constraints, including leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Business schools prepare students with lots of theoretical concepts with case studies that help them grow as entrepreneurs, leaders and CEOs, partially, not fully. 

Business schools serve as basic launching pads to build successful careers. The educators in business schools share their own corporate and academic experiences with students, giving the latter adequate strength to take on the corporate challenges effectively. If working executives also pursue management education in B-schools, they can share their corporate experiences in the classroom, thus adding value to conventional classroom learning. There will be lots of brainstorming and exchange of knowledge. Additionally, faculty members facilitate the sessions by adding their experience and expertise on the subject. Hence, business schools share their knowledge at maximum level to groom students as leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs. 

You cannot become a crackshot unless you lose some ammunition. Hence, real learning starts in the corporate world with lots of observation, experience, mistakes and learning from failures. 

Business schools serve as launching pads for students to enter the corporate world. Students must prove themselves by working hard and smartly, applying what they have learned in business schools.  Hence, business school education helps minimize mistakes and maximize performance and productivity in the workplace. 

There is another school of thought that there are some leaders who became successful leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs without a busines school education. Of course there are leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg who are successful without having formal degrees. Hence it is obvious that passion is more important than education to grow as successful leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs. 

Tips to fast-track your career and grow as a CEO

Here are some tips to touch your tipping point in the corporate world: 

  • Develop a CEO mindset. It is rightly said that a battle is won twice – first in your mind and then in reality. You must first think like a CEO  to become a CEO.  Find out what is required to become a CEO and start acquiring the knowledge, skills and abilities to excel as a CEO.
  • Acquire a positive, right and strong attitude. It is your attitude that determines your altitude. Therefore you must build your attitude. At times attitude is preferred over experience. For instance, a person with a great attitude with no experience is preferred over a person with great experience but with no attitude. That is the power of attitude! You must possess a positive, right and strong attitude. A positive attitude is about looking at things from a positive perspective. The right attitude is about emphasizing the right means to achieve your outcomes. A strong attitude is about sticking to your principles through thick and thin to accomplish your goals, despite the odds being stacked against you.
  • Acquire technical, business and conceptual acumen. Be strong in your domain.  Improve business acumen to address business challenges. Possess conceptual acumen to see the invisible forces and factors, especially in the external business environment. 
  • Emphasize emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) more than intelligence quotient (IQ). And the good news is that you can acquire EQ by working in teams and understanding group dynamics. 
  • Emphasize soft skills more than hard skills because soft skills matter a lot once you reach senior-level management. 
  • Don't job-hop often, as it presents you in a poor light professionally. Work in the same company for as long as possible. It helps the organizations to train and groom you to keep you ready in the leadership pipeline. Research shows that those who became CEOs have worked in their companies for many years. 
  • Enter into line functions more than in staff functions. Line functions are the core functions while staff functions are the supporting functions. Those who enter into line positions have better career opportunities than the ones entering into staff positions. 
  • Become involved in job rotation. Job rotation is about doing various tasks outside your routine nature of work. It has multiple advantages. It eliminates boredom and keeps you active. You get to know what is happening in other areas. It helps you develop conceptual skills. Above all, it helps you stay motivated.  Hence, undertake various roles and responsibilities beyond your specified nature of work within the organization to know something of everything and everything of something. 
  • Brand yourself. Nowadays branding is imperative. It is an effective tool to build your career and project your personality to others. You must be careful before branding. Choose carefully how you would like to brand yourself, as your brand will enhance your professional image and longevity. You must brand based on your principles, philosophies, competencies and capabilities. Keep updated with the latest technology. Technology is changing rapidly. You must update yourself with rapidly changing technology to leverage several benefits and save your time, money and energy. Additionally, most of the young CEOs are from the technology domain. If you are good at technology and start doing research you will get more ideas, thus founding a company and becoming a CEO at a young age.
  • Learn, unlearn and relearn. You need to update yourself regularly with the latest tools and techniques to reach your next higher position. What helped you to reach your present successful position might not work to reach your next higher position. 

Final thoughts

You must plan well at an early stage of your career for a long-term goal and work hard and smartly to touch this tipping point. You must be a continuous learner; accept the challenging roles and responsibilities; be willing to explore and experiment; learn lessons from mistakes; unlearn and relearn quickly with the changing times and technology, and above all, have the heart to serve the people. To conclude, becoming a CEO is not a decoration but it is a big responsibility. It requires consistent and persistent efforts with a vision and passion to serve the people to reach this highest rank.  

Professor MS Rao, pictured below, is the father of “Soft Leadership” and the founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India

MS Rao profile

Published 14 February 2024
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