What does it really take to become a CEO?

4 Minute Read | Author: Sylvia Pennington

Fancy yourself the next Geoff Dixon, David Thodey or Gail Kelly? The people who are appointed CEO in any major organisation rarely get there by luck or accident.

What does the route to the corner office look like? How can you set yourself up for a shot at the top job?

Think strategically, and give every role you take on your absolute all, says former accountant Andre Nell, 44, who was appointed CEO – Franchise at the publicly-listed Retail Food Group in June.

A long way to the top

Kicking off as an 18-year old trainee accountant and part-time student in South Africa in the late 1980s, Nell moved to London in his twenties and put in a long stint with GlaxoSmithKline on systems development projects.

After emigrating to Australia 12 years ago, he struggled to find executive openings on par with those available in abundance in Europe. He took a job as financial controller for Michel's Patisserie, a standalone bakery chain with big expansion plans.

Having the foresight to view the role as an opportunity - rather than a step down or sideways - placed him perfectly for a rise through the management ranks at RFG, the franchising conglomerate that acquired Michel's in 2007.

The big picture

"You need to be a real big-picture strategist – be able to step back and see the big picture," Nell says.

"You're presented with various opportunities along the way and it's about taking the right opportunities."

Throwing yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you take on, whether it's a plum position at a senior level or something more humble, is critical if you want to ensure opportunity keeps knocking, Nell believes.

"If you totally commit yourself to that role, you'll get opportunities down the track, therefore you'll have more control of your future," he says.

"The more successful you are in those instances, the more opportunities will follow."

Must Have Dones

CEOs arrive at the top by numerous routes but the ability to think strategically and take charge, along with self-reliance and self-awareness, are common hallmarks, executive coach Virginia Mansell says.

Work your way through the following checklist of 'Must Have Dones' as quickly as possible if you're hoping to make the cut, she advises.

"By the early thirties, there should be evidence of having run something, of having managed people and of having achieved a positive and measurable outcome running a business for growth and shareholder return."

It's not complicated

It's also expected you'll have things in order on the domestic front, and not be listing 'It's Complicated' as your relationship status on Facebook.

"There can't be problems at home if important decisions are continually being made at work," Mansell says.

"Generally things work better when spouses – of either gender – are on board with corporate life, are not resentful about being shuffled around to different geographies, and can cope with the requirements of the corporate activities associated with senior level roles."

'Nice to Haves' may also include a higher degree but it's not essential, according to Alpha Coaching psychologist Sharon Williams.

"MBAs are often the norm – however, a leader with a successful track record can often become a CEO without the university accolades or decades of leadership experience," she says.

Status quo breakers

Klaus Bartosch, the CEO of online health appointment booking platform 1st Available, says feeling comfortable in disrupting the status quo has been a bigger contributor to his career success than qualifications and experience.

He scored his first CEO role with a software vendor in his early thirties and put in a long stretch as sales director at digital services company Hostworks before being tapped for his current gig two years ago.

"When I left uni and went into my career … with an engineering background, certainly at the time I didn't imagine myself leading a company, let alone listing one on the Stock Exchange, but I had always thought about things differently to most," Bartosch says.

"I'm not a status quo kind of person – I was always looking for opportunities.

"You need to have absolute bloody-minded determination around what you're doing. A lot of people play it safe and I don't think that you can."

Lead and achieve

The ability to encourage and inspire your team members to excel is also critical, Bartosch says.

"I want to love what I do and like the people I work with … I believe the job of CEO is carrier of the vision and to support every member of the team to do the best they can."

And his advice to ambitious twenty-somethings who would like to be fronting the Board 15 years hence?

Choose the right company to work for very carefully; one whose business model and products you admire, and whose staff are willing and able to help you develop your skills.

"Can they teach and mentor you, or will they constrain you and prevent your growth? Your career will grow quickly under the right people."