Stepping up to CEO or President: What does it take?

I get called frequently from candidates interested in growing and developing their careers. Some of them are looking forward to having the big job in the corner office and think that a search firm can help them into that seat. They are right to think that…as a high percentage of CEO and President jobs are filled with the assistance of an exec search consultant. There are many books that address this topic so I will not offer a comprehensive step by step approach but from time to time I will share my thoughts about this interesting topic in my blog.

Today I heard from a women who is currently the assistant provost of academic affairs at a major medical school. She is interested in becoming president of a university or college sometime in the future. She is in mid career now and gaining a lot of good experience in her current role which includes dealing with human resource administration, budgeting, career develoment and strategic planning. She is also involved with grant management and fund raising. I began by saying to her…”the better you serve your current constituencies the more likely you will find yourself being nominated (by them) for a bigger role, because they have confidence that you can do the job—you want.” This is huge on many levels because your peers and superiors generally will only recommend people who they think are ready to step up.

It seems to me that people who go on to become really effective presidents or CEOs are well regarded and respected by their peers, subordinates and superiors throughout their careers. These are usually the people who can step into a university or company and be able to successfully transform it in the way the board envisions, too. Throughout their career candidates like these are building muscle to be ready for the heavy lifting of the big job. It is really great to see a well prepared president or CEO come in and do a great job acheiving the Key Performance Indicators of their new job. It happens like this when the candidate is prepared—ie., his or her reach does not exceed his or her grasp!

If you are the chair of the search for a new president or CEO here is a suggestion. A good way to assess if the candidate is really ready to step up is to drill down into his or her behavioral competencies gained through measurable accomplishments

We always tell our clients. Begin the search process with a clear statement of what you want the hired candidate to actually achieve–by when–and then provide as much information about the current state of affairs and strategic goals of your organization to qualified candidates. Discuss this in depth to see how experienced they really are in completing the tasks ahead that you and your colleagues believe will move your organization forward. Sometimes a good “athlete” can step up and handle a major challenge that he or she had no prior preparation to address. This is good stuff, but you don’t want to be counting on just a “good athelete” to take you to the Promised Land. Your new president or CEO is going to need to have good instincts for sure—but past accomplishments, and failures too, are often the most effective predictor of future performance in a new position.

So, if you are a candidate for the big job, what are you doing now to prepare yourself for the specific job deliverables as well as the unforseen slings and arrows that are sure to come? Keep gaining experience in the areas that you believe you will need to understand to do your new job well. And remember, “heavy weighs the crown”; once you put it on it is yours to wear.

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About Keith Kulper

Keith D. Kulper is the president and founder of KULPER & COMPANY, LLC an executive search consulting firm working in the area of senior level leadership for academia and corporate innovation. We are strong advocates of nurturing the linkage between academic investigation/research and corporate innovation/full commercialization of new product solutions. We specialize in attracting proven leaders who can effectively drive transformational change. The firm operates an Advisory Board that meets annually to bring together leaders from academia and corporate innovation to help drive continuous improvement of our professional practice. We are also an investor in early stage companies. We take pride in supporting the growth and development of business and engineering schools at leading universities throughout the United States.

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