Inheriting a big mess can get you to the top faster

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A 10-year study of ‘CEO sprinters’ — those who got to the top job faster than the average of 24 years from their first job — found something surprising: sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree.

Rather, the three most common strategies among the fastest of 2600 CEOs in the study were all risky career moves. Three strategies stood out as career catapults for those who got to the top fastest: taking on a smaller role, inheriting a big mess, or making a huge leap into an unknown field. 

The study’s authors have written up their main findings in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, and will publish more in an upcoming book called The CEO Next Door.

“Through these career catapults, executives build the specific behaviors that set successful CEOs apart — including decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact — and they get noticed for their accomplishments. The catapults are so powerful that even people in our study who never aspired to become CEO ultimately landed the position by pursuing one or more of these strategies.”

Strategy one: go small

“The path to CEO rarely runs in a straight line; sometimes you have to move backward or sideways in order to get ahead. More than 60% of sprinters took a smaller role at some point in their career. They may have started something new within their company (by launching a new product or division, for example), moved to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities, or started their own business. In each case, they used the opportunity to build something from the ground up and make an outsize impact.”

Strategy two: the big leap

“More than one-third of sprinters catapulted to the top by making “the big leap,” often in the first decade of their careers. These executives threw caution to the wind and said yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they’ve done previously and they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead.”

Strategy three: the big mess

“Messy situations cry out for strong leadership. When faced with a crisis, emerging leaders have an opportunity to showcase their ability to assess a situation calmly, make decisions under pressure, take calculated risks, rally others around them, and persevere in the face of adversity. In other words, it’s great preparation for the CEO job.”


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