Path to becoming CEO can take twists and turns

Female executive leading meeting
Reaching the top can take years and many hard knocks. (Getty/Sam Edwards)

Many different paths can set CEOs on their way to running a company. They range from being a career employee and working up the ranks to learning hard lessons at other employers. There is also that almost charmed fit, when you know this is what you were destined to be.

“Find your passion or let it find you,” said Nick Bailey, CEO of Century 21 Real Estate, in an email. “For me it was the real estate industry.”

And always be a student so you learn as much about your passion as you can, Bailey said. “It’s a culture and mindset that says be very serious about the impact you have on people’s lives, but also have fun and value the relationships you make along the way.”

Bailey said his approaches to learning include laser focus, setting a target, being very driven and never apologizing for always being hungry.

‘Observe carefully’

“What I did was study and watch successful people, be curious, ask questions, and observe them very carefully,” Bailey said. “When you do, you find both types of leaders: those that inspire and those that lead from fear. You can learn as much to do from leaders and also what not to do. Combine their inspiration with your talents and be you and only you. Being truly genuine has likely been my greatest asset in developing my career.”

Jon Lee, CEO at ProsperWorks, learned to grow a thick skin while he was a financial analyst at a large investment firm and said the experience helped position him well for running a company.

“I was expected to deliver perfect and copious work under incredible time pressure,” Lee said via email. “I got yelled at when I made mistakes, which happened frequently in the beginning. Life was work and work was life. From this, I learned just how far my ambition could push my mind and my body to withstand the pressure.”

Grit goes a long way

As a new CEO or entrepreneur, “you will be abused and put to the test by lack of experience,” Lee said. “The most important characteristic to have is grit—the ability to keep going in the face of adversity and mistakes. This is the way a young company wins—going fast to make more mistakes, which means learning more than your competition. So far, this approach has worked for me with three companies that are in completely different sectors with completely new things to learn at each juncture.”

For Victor Wahba, CEO of accounting firm Mazars USA, it was a combination of his drive and the company’s nurturing. “I was able to become CEO in my 50s by taking advantage of many opportunities that my company had provided me, from new responsibilities in taking over a practice group, to networking and training that put me in front of the global leadership at our firm,” Wahba said in an email. “My path to CEO combined hard work with a nurturing professional environment that invested in its training and employees.”

Broadened horizons, networking key

A key move, Wahba said, was when he became the managing partner of the New York office and was elected by the partners to the firm’s executive committee a couple of years later. “I was fortunate to gain even more leadership skills at this point in my career, supported by Mazars Group’s global training program. Mazars selected me to participate in an executive MBA program that took place over two years in several international cities. This broadened my horizons, network, and provided me with more continued growth opportunities.”

Becoming a CEO “happened organically for me,” said David Lenihan, Ph.D., CEO of Ponce Health Sciences University, via email. “My goal throughout my career journey has been to expand upon and improve both my education and leadership skills.”

Keep learning

“I believe that to be an effective CEO, striving to learn new things is essential, and you must be willing and able to continually build your skills in order to evolve and freshen your worldview,” Lenihan said. “This strategy, which included earning a law degree, a Ph.D., and now attending business school, has helped me to assimilate different disciplines and bodies of information into my executive decision making.”

In terms of leadership, “it’s imperative to be able to clearly communicate your vision to your team so that they can successfully work with you to help it become a reality,” Lenihan said. “This is particularly important when you're trying to achieve something innovative that doesn’t have an existing implementation template or road map to follow.”