It’s the top rung and the pinnacle of a successful career. It likely includes a corner-suite office, a gaggle of assistants, club memberships and first-class travel – all topped off with a generous compensation package. It’s also a 24/7 job, with lots of smiling photo ops and ribbon cutting, countless speeches and handshaking, and for most, a loss of privacy and anonymity. Such is the world of the CEO.

The gravity of the responsibility of the position cannot be taken lightly. Decisions made reverberate top-down through the organization – affecting all employees and rippling out to other stakeholders. Tough decisions land on the desk of the CEO and the expression ‘it’s lonely at the top’ is often a truism for them.

For some CAs, it is the treasured career goal. And many get there. A CICA study found that in 2008, 23 per cent of the top officers in the Report on Business 1000 were CAs. In fact, 11.1 per cent of the company chairs were CAs, 9.9 per cent of the CEOs and 9.2 per cent of the presidents.

Not only do CAs get there, but they perform well. The same study found that companies with a CA as the top officer (president or CEO) consistently performed better than companies headed by non-CAs in the key metrics of Return on Equity, Return on Capital and Return on Assets.

So how exactly does one become a CEO? There are many books, studies and papers on this subject, so in the interest of brevity, we’ll highlight the findings of just a few.

The formula method is popular and essentially is this: Get an MBA at the right school, work for the right company, adopt specific traits or rules in your conduct, and you’ll have a high probability of becoming CEO.

A U.S. study on CEO Factories by discovered that “one in five CEOs of public companies with a market value of at least $2 billion have one thing in common. They all have held a job at one of just 20 companies. Two companies in particular stand out at producing the most CEOs: General Electric and IBM.”

Both of those companies are huge. However, the study also found that on a ‘per employee basis’, consulting and public accounting firms rate very high – indeed at the top of the list. The top five companies at producing CEOs in descending order of odds – based on the number of employees – are:

  1. McKinsey
  2. Deloitte
  3. Baxter International
  4. PricewaterhouseCoopers
  5. Ernst & Young

This is encouraging news for CAs! Debra Benton, in her New York Times bestseller, How to Think Like a CEO: The 22 Vital Traits You Need to Be the Person at the Top, identifies those traits you need to succeed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with hundreds of the nation’s top executives, she explains the 22 vital traits that make a CEO. Many are fairly obvious – such as being good at your job. Others include being nice and a fighter for your people. She also identifies being honest and ethical as critical. These are naturals for CAs.

She further describes the CEO attributes paradoxically as:

  • You’re gutsy and a little wild – yet modest and in control
  • You’re competitive and tenacious – yet flexible and generous
  • You’re willing to admit mistakes – yet unapologetic
  • You’re secure in yourself – yet constantly improving
  • You’re original and straightforward – yet think before you talk

Jeffrey J. Fox, a sought-after consultant and former successful CEO, wrote How to Become CEO, and offers 75 rules to achieve that ambition. Here’s a partial list, shortened to include only those that appear original, surprising or perhaps counter-intuitive:

  • Always take the job that offers the most money
  • Think for one hour every day
  • Don’t have a drink with the gang
  • Skip all office parties
  • Friday is “How Ya’ Doin’?” day
  • Don’t take work home from the office
  • Avoid superiors when you travel
  • Eat in your hotel room
  • Overpay your people
  • Have fun, laugh
  • Treat your family as your number one client

Right-brain approach to success

While these traits and rules may work for those who subscribe to the formula method for achieving CEO status, there is also the intuitive or right-brain approach to getting to this rung. This method puts the emphasis on feeling, intuition, empathy, self-identity, flexibility and adaptability in connecting with people as the surest path to success. This approach says throw away the playbook and be a real feeling person who relates and responds to the needs of others – be they employees, customers, suppliers or other stakeholders.

In a study conducted by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs entitled Leadership Agility, they surveyed managers at different organizational levels and arrived at some interesting observations. They found that the top one per cent of leaders – as determined by the respondents – were so highly rated because “they worked with others in a more collaborative way because they are better attuned to the situation and the needs of other people.”

These top leaders, referred to by the authors as ‘synergists’, can stand in the eye of the storm with what they refer to as “synergistic intuitions that can transform seemingly intractable conflicts into solutions that are beneficial to all parties.” An interesting finding in the survey was the fact that half of this top one per cent were committed to meditation as a regular practice. This allowed them to be grounded, aware of their own feelings and the feelings of those around them and, very importantly, in real time while it’s happening, not after the fact. Is it only a matter of time before Meditation 101 becomes part of the business school curriculum?

There is some consensus among the experts and researchers:

  • CEOs are the organization’s top role model – how you talk, walk, dress, interact with and engage others, and go about your business are all keenly observed and emulated. You set the tone and the model for appropriate behavior. Begin practising early in your career.
  • You need to develop breadth – experience in various functional areas and different businesses, perhaps international exposure, and a second language can all be valuable. Continuous learning is your mantra.
  • You must develop your people skills – your ability to listen and synthesize information, empower and engage the team, articulate your vision, and persuade and influence stakeholders is an absolute requirement.

Mark Palmer, an executive recruiter with his own firm in Toronto, has had his share of CEO assignments and has some insightful anecdotes on becoming CEO. He recalls a conversation he had with one of his clients who ran one of the most consistently profitable and best-managed companies in his industry. This client also had only a grade 10 education and is part of the minority, entrepreneur-turned-CEO class.

When asked why he has been so successful, the client replied: “Because I have no shareholders and do not need to focus exclusively on achieving the bottom line”. He added that the way in which he achieved the bottom line was equally important. He was also quick to point out that he surrounded himself with outstanding managers.

Mark also relates the story of recruiting a president for the Canadian subsidiary of a U.S. parent. The U.S. parent was so pleased with Mark’s results that they invited him to undertake subsequent searches for all their senior executives in the U.S., with one condition. This was that half the candidates Mark would present would have Canadian business experience.

When asked why, his client responded that Canadians make better general managers than Americans. He elaborated by stating that Americans tend to produce specialists while Canadians produce generalists, due to the sheer size of the respective markets. He felt Canadian managers were exposed to a broader perspective earlier on in their career and by the time they reached the executive suites, were trained to think in broader and often more strategic business terms.

A final comment, and an obvious but important one, comes from Bob Muschewske of Personnel Decisions International. “You have to want to be at the top to be a successful CEO. This is not a role you fall into. Top leaders are comfortable calling the shots, persuading others about the decisions they think are right and taking the responsibility that goes along with the power position.”

So, do you want to be a CEO?


Guest contributor Robert Gagnon, CA, Associate Director, Professional Development, oversees the Institute’s Executive Programs. The Institute is launching its own CEO executive program called ‘Becoming CEO and Staying There’. Developed and instructed by Dr. Jim Murray, the program will debut in the fall of 2010.

Article appeared in The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario’s CHECKMARK magazine Autumn 2009.