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MAR 17, 2020 • 24 min read
Want to head up a company?
Want to become the big boss?
Well, you might struggle to do it right now unless you want to start your own business in high school, but if you’re willing to put in the hard yards over the next few years, you can definitely fast-track your way to become a CEO!
Before you get you ready to lead the charge in the business world, there are a few steps you need to take before you reach the top.
While present you might not want to take these first few steps, the you in 10 years who is running a business will be forever grateful that you did.
If you’re serious about becoming a CEO, preparations should begin as early as high school.
Things such as running for leadership positions, partaking in extracurricular activities and choosing subjects can all influence your career trajectory.
Before all else, however, it starts with choosing which subjects to study. This is preparation 101 for any career aspirations, CEO or otherwise.
Choosing wisely can build a good foundation of knowledge and experience to help speed up the process of becoming a CEO, while choosing poorly can leave you feeling out of your depth come time for university.
Before choosing subjects you need to ask yourself what you're passionate about. If your interests and passions belong to a particular subject, you should be selecting based on that focus area. For example, if you want to become the CEO of an art and design company, study art and design.
If you’re still unclear on what you want to study, try to vary what you’re choosing in the earlier years of high school. This can help you work out where your passions lie.
On top of pursuing subjects you’re passionate about, however, there are a few more generic business-focused subjects that all future business leaders should be studying.
These are the subjects that teach the basics and provide a strong foundation for any future CEO.
In addition to your subjects, you should also extend yourself beyond the classroom with extracurricular activity involvements.
Whatever extracurriculars you look to complete, if you’re serious about becoming a CEO, they should involve a number of skills aligned with CEOs such as decision-making, communication, leadership, managerial and organisational skills.
You could look to do something such as start your own business or start a young entrepreneurs club at your school, which will obviously teach you a lot about how a business runs.
Alternatively, you could partake in extracurriculars focused more on developing your traits as a leader, such as joining the school debating team, running for school captain or other leadership positions, or organising and running charity events.
This is a huge step to take if you’re planning on becoming a CEO.
Without a degree, you’ll really struggle to become the leader of any business; in fact, unless you've started your own company, the chance of becoming a CEO without a degree is virtually zero.
So while it might seem like you’re wasting precious time at uni when you could be working hard to clamber up the corporate ladder, it’s pretty essential to the cause and will pay off in the long run.
If you’re really edgy and need to get into the workforce ASAP, there are ways to shorten your time at uni.
In the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, many schools offer fast-tracked programs, which involve taking on extra subjects and forgoing summer breaks to continue classes.
Not only will a fast-tracked degree allow you to get into the corporate world sooner, but it also looks super impressive on your academic transcript and CV.
Before you’ve even begun your job, you’ve displayed some key traits of a future CEO: hard work, time management, leadership, initiative and drive.
Depending on the country you’re in, the options to fast track your degree will vary. Australia and the UK offer the fastest path to graduation.
In Australia, the standard undergraduate degree is four years; however, the minimum amount of time you’ll spend at university if you’re willing to overload on subjects and take summer classes is two years.
In the UK, you can also graduate with a bachelor's degree within two years. However, given the educational system is more focused on in-depth learning, you may find it much harder to overload on subjects and continue through the summer break. If your uni is willing to support you and you’re up for the challenge, it’s achievable.
As for New Zealand, while the standard bachelor's degree takes four years to complete, you can fast-track certain programs to graduate within two and a half years.
In the US, you can achieve a bachelor's degree by spending three years at uni with the support of your institution, although you would really need to push yourself. If you’ve complete the Advanced Placement curriculum or IB Diploma Program at high school and been awarded some college credits, this can further reduce your time spent at college.
Unfortunately, there is no one guaranteed approach to become a CEO. However, the flipside of this is that it provides some flexibility to choose what you want to study at university. Well… flexibility within reason.
Studying nursing, while admirable, certainly isn’t going to help you climb to the top of McKinsey & Co, is it?
Ideally, a CEO candidate will have completed a postgraduate MBA degree, however, given we’re looking to get to the top ASAP, an MBA is definitely not essential. In fact, less than half of Fortune 100 CEOs completed an MBA.
Here are five of the best undergraduate degrees you can study if you’re hoping to become a CEO
Makes sense, right?
Securing a degree in business is a real boost to your chances of becoming a CEO as you’ll acquire all the practical know-how and the ins and outs of running a business. Studying business management is ideal, as it will teach you about the big picture managements of a business, not just the day to day grind.
Best universities for business degrees: Harvard University, London Business School, INSEAD, MIT, UPenn
There’s a strong argument that studying economics is almost essential for any hopeful CEO. Economics is literally all around us, every day. Therefore, studying Economics gives you an understanding of the world we live in, everything from what determines the price of your precious avocados to why the standards of living vary so wide between countries.
Similar to studying business, pursuing a degree in accounting and finance will give you a great base level of knowledge and understanding into how a business works. The real difference is that accounting and finance degrees will have a heavier focus on money and numbers… obviously.
If you’re provided with the option, it would be a killer idea to partner this degree with a humanities major. This way, you’ll have the best of both worlds, the ability to work with numbers and people!
Engineering is a real winner of a degree, and there’s numbers to prove it, too.
While half of Fortune 100 CEOs studied one of first three subjects in business, economics, or accounting, a full 27% of the CEOs on the list studied engineering or science. The largest percentage of any one subject. Over a quarter of the world’s top CEOs studied engineering or science!
Need I say more?
According to research, graduates with a liberal arts background are more likely to end up becoming CEOs than those who’ve studied in other areas.
As the business world speeds up, employees are expected to be able to wear many hats in their roles, varying from tech genius to marketing whiz to analytics expert. A liberal arts degree can help you gain knowledge in a number of different areas, making you very appealing to future employers!
How quickly you become a CEO will depend on not just what you study, but where you study.
For this reason, it’s important to be strategic in your university selection. Take California, for example, which is America’s largest state economy. Studying there will help you with securing internships, building networks and ultimately achieving your goal of becoming a CEO.
But it’s not just about location, but the quality of your university.
For example, in the US, there’s a distinct Ivy League difference, while in the UK, if you attend an Oxbridge or Russell Group university, you can really speed up the process to becoming a CEO, not to mention your ability to make some serious bank!
This is the number one school to attend if you’re looking to become a CEO, thanks in large to its world-renowned postgraduate MBA programs. However, it’s not just the MBA program that makes it so good – with an undergraduate degree from Harvard, you’re certainly a very desirable employee.
To add a little cherry on top, Harvard is also great at producing billionaires, so if money is your inspiration, this is the place for you. 28 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list graduated from Harvard – five more than the runner up, Stanford.
QS World University Ranking: 3
Speaking of Stanford… it’s another elite univeristy that will help you fast-track your way to the top, and make some serious cash money in the process. In fact, 23 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list graduated from Stanford, the second most of any college.
A huge boost to its credentials is the West Coast university’s close proximity to the booming Silicon Valley. Tech companies with the need for CEOs are popping up regularly in the Valley!
QS World University Ranking: 2
Combined, about 15% of the world’s top CEOs attended either Oxford or Cambridge. If you’re looking to study in the UK, an Oxbridge college should be the aim. Beyond just their world-renowned reputation, the UK education system has a habit of teaching students very in-depth knowledge of one particular area. So, if you’re passionate about a particular major, the UK will teach you all there is know!
QS World University Ranking: 4 & 5, respectively
Even beyond the Oxbridge schools, LSE has a knack for producing highly paid, powerful business people. In 2017, it was shown that graduates from LSE make more than any other college graduates in the UK, (except those from Imperial College London). A huge bonus of studying at LSE is its close proximity to London's CBD, one of the world's largest economies and a rapidly growing hotbed of tech startups!
QS World University Ranking: 35
Located in the hustling and bustling heart of Manhattan, Columbia is an Ivy League university that provides you with serious boost to become a top earner, particularly given its close proximity to Wall St. If you’re looking to get into finance or economics, this is the place for you.
There’re plenty of options to extend your learning beyond the classroom, too, with internships aplenty in New York City.
QS World University Ranking: 18
Each of these colleges have some pretty solid chops when it comes to creating CEOs and would certainly be considered elite in the grand scheme of global education. So if you’re serious about becoming a CEO, you’ll need to really perfect the ace the application process to gain admission into one of these joints.
To give yourself an even greater chance of reaching the top, it’s a good idea to study abroad, even if just for a semester. This will help in the long run if your plans are to head up a global business, which in today’s globalised market is nearly any business.
75% of all S&P 500 companies (stock market lingo) today report some kind of international revenue; so you need to be culturally informed and aware if you’re going to close those big international deals and form those cross-cultural partnerships!
This is where things really begin to heat up; where you start building connections and getting your foot in the door!
Most people think entering the workforce only begins once you’ve got a degree, but that's just not true; heck, entering the workforce can even begin while you’re in high school partaking in work experience and continue on to internships while you're at university.
Start with work experience as early as year 9 or 10 and start exploring and experimenting to see what you like about the business world and what you don’t.
High school is the time to experiment, because once you go to university, you’ll want to get an internship that can help you secure a job upon graduation. While you always want to be striving to learn more about your passions and interests, the internship at university should be more aligned with the industry you wish to become a leader in.
Given you want to reach the top in as little time as possible, entering an industry while still at uni will provide you with a head start on all your graduating peers and you'll have a much stronger chance of securing a job sooner and eventually becoming a CEO.
Obviously, the longer you're in an industry, the more experience you gain. But beyond experience even, you’ll be able to build relationships and networks. And how does the old saying go? It’s not what you know, but who you know!
Well, the same logic applies. If you’ve been in an industry since before you’ve even graduated, when companies are looking for a new CEO and you’ve had a few years of building up connections, your name might be tossed into the ring!
But once you’ve completed work experience and internships, you’ve taken the time ace high school and excel at university, it’s now time for you to enter the real world by getting a grown up job!
Again, the first crucial point is to choose your starting point wisely… you want to be in an industry that you can see yourself in for years to come. This doesn’t mean you have to get your dream job straight away, just be in your dream industry.
It's been proven that the longer you stay in one industry, the more likely you are to become a CEO than those who switch industries.
Additionally, you also want to choose a work environment where you can thrive and your career growth is supported, as you’ll have more opportunities to move up.
You can assess this by asking questions during the interviewing process. For example, ask about potential for growth in the role you're applying for, enquire about the work culture and investigate the way the company can offer educational and professional development for you at this starting phase of your career.
Once you’ve chosen an industry and got your foot in the door, you want to learn as much as you can as fast as possible so you can start working your way up through the ranks.
“But how?” I hear you asking. Well, here are five key skills you'll need to ace in order to get on the fast track to becoming a CEO:
This goes without saying (LOL), but having strong communication skills is crucial to becoming a good leader. In your first few months in the workforce, try to develop your understanding of the appropriate methods of communication throughout the business.
This extends beyond face-to-face interactions but also into the tech world with your grammar, structure, style and tone of emails and online messages.
If communication is not something you’re comfortable with and you have more of a tech or math background, look to improve your communication ability in outside of work hours. This could be by joining a workshop or completing a short course, or even something as simple as joining a book club.
On this note, one habit that many CEOs share is reading every day. So why not start doing this too?
Take Bill Gates, for example, he reads 50 books a year, which is almost one book a week! By reading you can naturally and unconsciously develop your grammatical skills and improve your written communication.
As a CEO, you’ll be writing a hell of a lot of emails, so you better make sure you’re nailing them!
There’s no denying that becoming a CEO requires you to understand how to think strategically about the direction of your business.
In the early days in the industry, try and expose yourself to as many areas of the business as possible so you can start developing an understanding of where all departments fit into the big picture.
Budding CEOs need to understand how the business as a whole operates. This NY Times article references a LinkedIn study that found that it helps greatly to have experience in as many of a business’ functional areas as possible.
The article and research suggests that “experience in one additional functional area improved a person’s odds of becoming a senior executive as much as three years of extra experience.”
What's more, the article states that if you've had experience working in four different functions it had nearly the same impact as getting an MBA from a top five program… See, I told you an MBA isn’t necessary.
To help develop these skills early, look to find a mentor who can guide you through some of the big decisions the company is making. On top of this, always take time to sit back and reflect on you and your team’s role in the company – it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of churning out work, but in order to grow and develop you need to take time to step back and understand the why of what you’re achieving.
Equally as important as communication is having the ability to listen, and listen properly.
As a good leader, you can’t just pay attention to the loudest person in the room, because just because they’re the loudest doesn't mean they’re right. You need to take time to listen to all voices and make a decision based on what you’ve heard.
On top of this, a good leader isn’t expected to have all the answers, they are expected to trust the right people to their job, and this starts with listening to what they’re saying.
With an inability to listen, a leader becomes a dictator, which does not foster a good work environment.
Some ways to become a better listener could be to practise meditation or the art of mindfulness. This isn’t for everyone, but it doesn't take much effort at all. Simply download an app and practise for 10-15 minutes everyday while you’re sitting in bed or at your desk. Easy peasey!
The role of a CEO is a very human one, it’s about much more than just strategic thinking and business management. It’s about building connections and relationships both within the business and outside the business.
If you think about any good or bad manager you’ve ever had, the difference really comes down to how well they can build, maintain and balance a relationship on a personal and professional level.
As a CEO, this extends beyond just relationships with your employees, but also relationships with possible business partners, board members and stakeholders, too.
In your first few years of working in the industry, you want to develop your networking and relationship building skills. You can do this by reading books, listening to podcasts, or attending workshops, but the best way to do it is by attending industry networking events and getting first hand experience of building real relationships.
Beyond fine-tuning your ability to build connections at these events, you never know, you might just meet the board member who ends up hiring you as their next CEO!
This one's pretty obvious, but to be a good CEO, you need to have good leadership and management skills.
In order to develop these skills, you can start as early as high school by getting involved in extracurricular activities and events that help you develop leadership and management traits!
Activities such as organising events, starting a group, founding a company or even volunteering for a charity can all help you develop these skills. However, just because you start these extracurricular activities in high school, it doesn't mean they have to stop once you enter college or the workforce.
Participating and organising hobbies and activities beyond your regular work hours will help you continue your personal development as a strong leader, team player and manager. Additionally, when you take time to switch off from work it allows you to bring a new perspective into the office, possibly providing you with the new direction or strategy to improve.
This next step is a given… In order to reach the top, you need to get promoted... again and again… and again… and another one!
Before becoming a CEO, you need have held a position with some hefty responsibility, such as an operational role. Typically, future CEOs will first be put in charge of running the largest division or the most important international business, before they get offered the top spot. In fact, three quarters of Fortune 100 CEOs come from operations. That's a fairly strong majority, if you ask me!
So how do you get there? What do you need to be doing to secure the top spot in a short time?
Well, it’s simple, really... just work freaking hard! Head down, bum up.
Well, maybe it's not that simple...
But if you’re doing all the things we’ve spoken about, you’ll definitely be drawing attention to yourself as someone with all the traits of a future CEO, a strong leader and hard worker, which can’t hurt, right?
However, in addition to developing all the traits of a CEO, in order to get a promotion, you need to be able to prove yourself by demonstrating what you’ve achieved and being able make a case for a promotion.
For this reason, it's good to put your hand up for tasks that might sit outside of your comfort zone, roles that include organising and managing people. Even if it's a task you might have to learn by making mistakes, it's better to learn than to simply not put yourself out there.
You need to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever it is you take on, everything from simple tasks to elaborate business plans.
To really build a case, you should have evidence of having run something and managed people. But, most importantly, you need to be able to share a positive and measurable impact your input has had. Whether that be an increase of revenue at the bottom line, an improvement on bringing in marketing qualified leads or simply increasing the amount of clients your business has, you need to be able to show how your work has impacted the business.
Also, if you seriously think you've got a case for promotion, don't sit around waiting for the boss man or woman to just hand it to you. Book a time and meeting with them and don't just ask for a promotion – show them why you deserve one!
But that's enough of me telling you how to do it, let's take a look at how some young people have done it before.
The Guardian recently shared three case studies of CEOs who reached the top before they turned 30, one of whom never even attended university.
Danny Waters was made CEO of secured loan providers Enterprise Finance when he was just 25... twenty five!
You might be wondering how he did it. Well, he starting working at the firm from the age of 18 and decided to forgo his studies to pursue a full-time career. So he had seven years of working his way up through the ranks. By the time he was 22, he was managing director of the business and by 25 he was CEO!
Danny puts a large part of his success down to the work environment he was in, where he was provided with the support to excel beyond his years. This is why it becomes crucial to ask plenty of questions in your job interview about potential for growth and development. It can be far too easy to get caught in a toxic work place that has little interest in up-skilling their junior employees - this is what you want to avoid!
Danny's advice to any aspiring CEO is simple really: enjoy what you do!:
"...It's really important that you enjoy what you do because if you do, then you tend to achieve and excel at whatever career you are in," he says.
Another CEO who reached the top before 30 was Jonathan Samuels, became CEO of Dragonfly Property Finance when he was just 28. Jonathan claims his fast-tracked journey to the top was all ambition and hard work along with a little bit of risk-taking.
He makes a good point too, stating that while you're young, you don't have all the responsibilities of a family, bills or a mortgage. This lack of responsibility allows you to take more risks because the consequences of failure are far less.
Don't get caught saying "I wish I had..." or " I should have done...". Be bold, take risks and work your damn ASS off!
The overall sentiment the three young CEOs shared in the article was that it doesn't matter what you're doing, whether it's stacking shelves at the supermarket, making a PowerPoint presentation or running the whole business, you need to crack in and do it to the best of your ability. This is possibly the best advice for any aspiring CEO.
More often than not, the appointment of a new CEO is decided upon by the board members of the business. So if you're looking to make the leap from employee to CEO at the same business (as opposed to joining a new business) you'll need to be on the good side of the board.
This is where your ability to build strong connections becomes crucial. Before the position is even available, you should've been on their radar for future leadership positions, anyway. So if you follow the first four steps, you'll be on the right track to becoming a young CEO!
Yep, it’s that simple, just four steps to becoming a CEO. Then you can sit back in your new corner office, stare out at the Manhattan skyline and start stressing about how much work you have to do.
But it’ll totally be worth it!
Just take a look at these substantial median salary ranges for CEOs, particularly in the USA!
Australia: $98,329 - $302,271 AUD ($75,171 - $231,045 USD)
UK: £38,772 - £175,982 ($50652 - $229903 USD)
US: $591,008 - $960,469 USD
Ohhh, mama. That's some good earning.
Just like applying to the university of your dreams, there's no one size fits all cookie cutter approach to becoming a good CEO. It takes a whole combination of desirable assets of which your degree is merely 30%.
The next 40% comes down to your experience, the companies you've worked for, the positions you have held and your work-related reputation.
The remaining 30% is hard work and key traits: including leadership qualities, stress handling, decision making, communication, and management skills.
Look, becoming a CEO definitely ain't easy and there aren't any guarantees to becoming one. There's also a whole lot of luck and circumstance which comes into play.
However, if you're willing to work your backside off, your fingers to the bone and your brain at 100% capacity, fast-tracking your path to the top is definitely possible!