I was inspired to write this article after reading an essay arguing for becoming a salesperson, rather than a CEO . . . claiming that a salesperson’s hours are shorter, the stress is less, and moment-to-moment tasks are more enjoyable. That didn’t make sense to me. While I certainly know some stressed-out, overwhelmed CEOs, I know many more hopelessly frustrated, discouraged salespeople.
Yes, it’s no fun to lead a failing organization. It’s even less fun trying to sell offerings for such a faltering company.
However, keep in mind that an effective CEO can make almost any firm successful. Few effective salespeople can.
If I’m right about effective CEOs, why do so many CEOs flop so badly that they have to be quickly replaced? I can’t speak for any individual situation I didn’t observe directly, but I certainly can draw on lessons from those CEOs I have seen lose their jobs due to poor performance.
The ones I know who flopped weren’t adequately prepared to lead companies. The job was usually thrust on them after doing well in some more limited company role. The board of directors assumed that the rest of the leadership capabilities were in place . . . but either didn’t check to make sure or didn’t know how to check.
Over the years, I’ve written many articles about what it takes to become an outstanding CEO. Those articles demonstrate that the list of top-performance capabilities keeps changing . . . and becomes increasingly difficult to meet.
If I could pick only three requirements today for high CEO performance (all other things being equal), they would be:
1. mastery over identifying and implementing ways to make exponential breakthroughs in revenue increases, cost reductions, and appropriate investment choices
2. vision and skill to lead an organization-wide process of continually upgrading business models
3. ability to sense how the organization’s environment requires adjustments in what is done in order to turn all irresistible trends into positive influences on the organization
You might assume that all CEOs with business educations would be fully able in all these areas. If you so assumed, you were quite wrong. Most business education is aimed at producing middle managers who specialize in one aspect of what a company does (such as accounting, engineering, finance, manufacturing, marketing, product management, or sales).
Let’s look at what happens when such a well-trained specialist rises to the top of the organization. You’ve done a great job of selling for your business. Now you are in charge of everything. Chances are that you keep focusing on making sales, perhaps not even appointing a strong person to replace you. What happens to everything else that’s important? Those activities fall apart over time as cooperation breaks down among the different functions. And you won’t know what to do differently. Too bad!
What’s the answer? A lot more preparation for CEOs in many more ways, not in just the three big ones I mentioned earlier. CEOs also need to know the most important ins and outs of all the disciplines within an organization so that the leader knows what needs to be done, can speak the language of the people who do it, and understand how to coordinate all the different activities to accomplish more.
What does such preparation have to do with enjoying being a CEO? A well-prepared CEO is certainly busy, but that’s due to being excited by the tasks and challenges to take on more work. The difference between that busyness and what a failing CEO experiences is like the difference between going for a nice, long walk on a pleasant day with your friends and continually bailing out a sinking ship with a bucket that’s too small for the task.
I base my observations on having helped prepare dozens of CEOs of major companies over the last four decades.
In addition, I studied for over a decade the characteristics of the most successful CEOs for Chief Executive Magazine. As part of that work, I routinely met with, and discussed the plans and results of such CEOs. The ease with which the best functioned was quite evident . . . and it was always based in long-term, thorough preparation for the work.
As an example of what I mean, let me describe the preparation and work experiences of one such CEO, a colleague on the Rushmore University faculty, Professor Elijah Chingosho, Ph.D., who leads the African Airlines Association, which represents many of the largest commercial air carriers on the continent.
As a youngster on a farm in Zimbabwe, he dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Through hard work and perseverance, he was able to earn a scholarship for such advanced training, graduating with a Master’s degree in engineering from Loughborough University of Technology in England. That gave him a sound theoretical background in aviation.
Next, Dr. Chingosho served for fourteen years in the Air Force of Zimbabwe, eventually heading all of the engineering and maintenance activities. Continuing his preparation, he took many courses in subjects that would help him be more effective, such as accounting, management, and transport economics. He earned an MBA degree, adding civilian business perspectives. He also wrote a book about engines, Elementary Aircraft Propulsion.
After that, he worked for 15 months in a marketing company as a projects development manager, giving him a substantial taste of how different management disciplines need to be combined for business success.
Air Zimbabwe called next, asking Dr. Chingosho to lead its engineering department.
Because of his extraordinary background, he was soon recruited to be the Technical and Training Director of the African Airlines Association, with responsibilities for engineering and operations issues, environmental topics, communications, navigation, and air traffic management, as well as training of airline personnel throughout the African continent. In many cases, he actually led the courses.
While in this role, Dr. Chingosho found ways to improve training, reduce its costs, and make it much more available. As a result, the effectiveness of many African airlines was upgraded.
He took the same approach to his own skills, continuing upgrading them through independent study, diploma and certificate courses, and advanced degrees such as the Ph.D. from Rushmore University and the DBA from Warnborough University, both through distance learning. His list of degrees also includes a Master of Commerce degree in Transport Economics from the University of South Africa.
Continuing his writing, Professor Chingosho’s Ph.D. dissertation at Rushmore was published as African Airlines in the Era of Liberalisation, which is now the standard reference text on management and trend impacts on African airlines. The Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators also commissioned him to write their standard texts on strategic management and general management.
Already a member of the Rushmore faculty, he then became the CEO of the African Airlines Association. Can you imagine anyone being any better prepared? I can’t.
I asked Professor Chingosho what it was like to step into the CEO role. He responded that:
“As CEO, I apply the practical ideas I learnt about strategic management, leading change, enlightened leadership, creating effective teams and getting the maximum output from people. The Rushmore training gave me confidence that I can make it to the top and prepared me for the challenges of the top job.”
In other words, he knew what to do first, second, and third.
How does he find the job now?
“My life has become busier as I am often requested to speak at various forums. I often write papers and articles that are featured in various aviation magazines and journals. My views are sought on a wide range of issues largely pertaining to aviation development in Africa by journalists and commentators worldwide because of their confidence in my expertise. I have developed a passion for golf, which has provided me with the additional benefit of being able to network with senior business executives, government officials and other important contacts.”
It doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Professor Chingosho also enjoys teaching, reads a lot, and is one of the world’s leading book reviewers.
I asked him what advice he has for others who want to become CEOs. Here is some of what he had to say:
“Job promotions are typically based on employee motivation, quality of work, and the ability to get along with others. However, superiors also consider whether or not the employee has a university degree which demonstrates that the employee is serious about the work, knows how to learn, and can achieve goals.
“Because of intense international competition, companies tend to give emphasis to sales and customer service, which entails seeking employees with strong communication skills. Organisations often see university graduates as more motivated, able to learn tasks more quickly, more proficient at meeting deadlines, and better at adapting to rapid change, communication and problem-solving.”
As a professor, he has a high opinion of those who study with him online:
“My work with students reveals that they are mature and are already employed or carrying out a business. They seek courses that directly benefit their careers or business. They know very clearly why they are doing the course. They are highly motivated and are ready to put up the extra hours for combining their work with studies.
“Having a one-to-one relationship with the students equips me with knowledge of their circumstances which helps me to mentor or guide the student appropriately.
“I also learnt that the flexibility of online learning is very much appreciated by students so they can pursue their learning while engaged in other work activities. Sometimes a student will break for some time due to say family circumstances or change of work or starting a new business. Then when the learner is ready, they start from where they left with no fuss.
“I also find that students really appreciate the rigorous and individualized Oxford Tutorial Method of teaching and learning. The student learns to think through research and writing. The students like to be responsible for planning their own time and ensuring that the requisite work is accomplished.”
That experience and advice seem to say it all. Preparation does count, both for making it to the top and for enjoying it while you are there.
When will you accelerate your preparations to become an effective CEO?
What are you waiting for?
Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit