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3 ways to catapult to the top and become CEO

Sprinting for the top job is great, but at some point you also have to jump


Since 1995, New York-based management consulting firm ghSMART has been advising the globe’s top business minds in every major industry and across private, public and social sectors. “We’re in this unique position of pretty much a front-row seat—as well as coaches on the field—to some of the most successful people in business,” says partner Elena L. Botelho. “And we’ve done it 18,000 times.”

Just imagine sitting atop that incredible wealth of data, and you’ll understand why Botelho, with co-author Kim R. Powell, wrote The CEO Next Door. “We sat down for at least four or five hours with thousands of CEOs to analyze their whole career in detail,” says Botelho. Then they went digging for patterns.

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“We looked at career choices to see what’s common among the fast risers—people we call “sprinters” who get to the top faster than everyone else.” It wasn’t luck or a fancy Harvard degree, but turns out 97% had engaged in at least one of these three career slingshots or, as Powell prefers, “catapults” that vaults them over the wall first. Here’s how they did it.

Catapult #1: “The Big Leap”

Remember that old board game Snakes & Ladders? “The big leap is the when you see the ladder and it gives you an opportunity to jump ahead,” says Botelho. Too often, newbies balk at big responsibility beyond their capabilities. (Women in particular do this a lot, adds Botelho.) One CEO, Krista Endsley from software firm Abila, notes that uncomfortable in-over-your-head imposter syndrome is actually a very good sign. “Everyone should always feel a little bit outside their comfort zone,” she said, “because it means you’re growing.” And a really good thought to encourage anyone feeling unqualified: “The ladder itself is the training,” says Botelho. Don’t wimp out and miss your chance to climb.

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Catapult #2: “The Big Mess”

Whereas some are quick to take a leap, they’re much less inclined to clean up a mess. Examples: “Taking on that broken division, moving to that messy London office, selling the product that’s in the gutter and nobody wants,” says Botelho. The thing about the big mess, she says, is that what appears a career-limiting move has disproportionate pay-off potential. “If you go and fix it, especially if other people have tried and failed before, you’ve got instant credibility and visibility.” (Failing, meanwhile, is not as bad as it seems, as the division/office/product was doing so anyhow.)


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Catapult #3: “Go Small to Go Big”

Damien McDonald was a VP at Johnson & Johnson with a great boss and a secure future. But unwilling to hang around waiting to take his boss’ job, McDonald jumped ship for Zimmer, a relatively unknown company struggling to stay afloat. On the surface, it looked a misstep, but 60% of Sprinters have done the same. “They take a risk on something less secure, less sure, with less prestige,” says Botelho. Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond, however, gives a budding CEO more control than they’d ever have elsewhere. From there, Sprinters can catapult in any direction they choose.