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10-year study: Quickest way to become CEO is not perfection

Leaders   CEO Genome Project

Researchers Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell conducted a 10-year study of over 17,000 C-suite executives as a part of the CEO Genome Project in order to discover what sets successful people apart.

After closely studying these CEO sprinters, Botelho and Powell came to a surprising conclusion: The quickest way to the top is not perfection. The people who became CEOs the fastest did not have MBAs from Ivy League schools and they weren't long-time employees with squeaky clean track records.

They found that it takes the average CEO 24 years to become head honcho but that some people — who they refer to as "CEO sprinters" — do it even faster.

"Sprinters don't accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree," they write for Harvard Business Review. "They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top."

Researchers identified three specific catapults that allowed 97 percent of the sprinters to reach CEO status.

The study found that 60 percent of sprinters opted to take a smaller role with greater responsibility at some point in their careers.

By choosing to work for a smaller company, moving to a leadership role on a young team or launching a new initiative, sprinters were able to gain significant management experience that later catapulted them ahead of their peers.

Over a third of the sprinters made a big leap in the first decade of their careers. These CEOs were handed an opportunity that was beyond their experience and rather questioning if they were qualified, they went for it.

By accepting an opportunity that they were not fully prepared for, these sprinters learned on the job and ended up gaining experience that benefited them later on in their careers.

One of the fastest ways to prove that you are prepared to be a CEO is to prove your worth during a difficult time say Botelho and Powell. Their research found that over 30 percent of sprinters led a team through a big mess.


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