Class 4: Experience—Three Dilemmas for Would-Be CEOs
“I learned from classes and from books,” says Bob Dudley (CEO of BP, UK). “But most of my knowledge came from my jobs.” Every single one of our 20 business leaders—without exception—believes that the trade of CEO must be learned on the job. Formal education provides a useful foundation, they all agree, but the skills you need to secure the top position can only come from experience.
We conclude that the best course of action for future CEO development is to balance breadth of experience with some degree of depth. Ideally, the aspiring CEO needs to start by gaining some expertise before broadening out into new areas. International exposure helps, even though our experts did not consider it as critical as many leadership development experts and academics do. But they agree that it is essential to gain experience of managing people as early as possible, to have had some P&L responsibility before becoming a CEO and to learn by failing! As Jeffrey Immelt (CEO of General Electric, USA) says, “I think business is a game of mistakes… going through cycles, making mistakes and learning from them is what builds character and experience.”
Developing profound industry knowledge in the early days of their careers is also very important for effective CEOs. Frontline jobs and positions in operations are essential—ideally in the company you will eventually lead. In the end, according to our interviewees (and all the academic research), the best CEOs usually come from within the organisation. However, an insider must also know how to “stand outside” the company and see it objectively.
KeywordsFailure Industry knowledge International exposure Managing people P&L responsibility
Some Further Reading
- Bennis, W. G. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. 4th Edition. Philadelphia: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Conger, J. A., Benjamin, B. (1999). Building Leaders: How Successful Companies Develop the Next Generation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
- Conger, J. A. (2010). Leadership Development Interventions. Ensuring Return on Investment. In: R. Khurana, N. Nohria (Eds.) Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
- Drucker, P. (1999). Managing Oneself. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.Google Scholar
- Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R. (2017). Riding the Leadership Rollercoaster. Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar