I was having a discussion with a colleague about staffing at the most senior level of an organization. Non technical, Director and CEO level jobs. In fact the discussion I was having was with a CEO himself. What he said actually surprised me, especially given the level he is at in his personal career. First let me give a brief summary of what transpired.
We discussed a potential candidate for a role in a large corporation at 2 levels below the CEO. I retorted that this particular person we had in mind, was above that level, too senior and ready for a CEO job himself, and so he wouldn’t be interested, and that I thought he was ‘better’ than the role on offer. He disagreed. He said that this person wasn’t ready for a CEO role as he had not even held the role of director and it was too much of a leap…. the discussion kind of went around in circles as to what qualifies a person for the most senior job. His view was that the very top job in large companies was really only the domain of a special few. My point was that who the special few are is really an arbitrary decision made by the people who have the power to put people in positions….
In the qualitative arena of corporate positions there is no such thing as being qualified. Every time a person steps up or gets the opportunity to step up, is because someone in power handed it to them. Sure, they may have done well before but it’s not a guarantee of future performance. In fact, there are probably more examples of CEO’s doing bad jobs than there are of those doing terrific jobs. Especially given that most CEO’s didn’t build the business they are managing, they ‘inherited the corporate wealth’.
As far as I can tell it’s rather simple, and there are a few things that enable and facilitate people getting that big job:
- The person needs to be good at speaking, presenting & selling the future, not necessarily making it happen.
- The person needs to be smart, good at influencing others, but not necessarily a hard worker.
- The person needs to ‘look the part’ – seem like they belong. Present and dress well.
- The person needs to have seemingly ‘relevant experience’ in the same or a juxtaposed industry.
- The person needs to look good on paper, be a justifiable choice to the decision maker(s).
- The person needs someone to have had faith in them earlier in their career, promoting them to senior gigs before they look too old, or even when they looked surprisingly young – they need to be ‘picked’ and promoted. It makes them look more special or talented than the other people.
- The person needs to play a good internal game, this matters much more than their actual output.
- The person needs to not stick out as risk to the organisation, that way the decision makers wont be blamed if they turn out to be not so good.
Notice how none of these things actually guarantee the right person will get the job?
In fact, every job someone gets is based on the previous job someone else decided they deserve. Corporate climbers know this and leverage this through their entire career until they break through the glass barrier. They often then go on to earn millions for years to come trading themselves to various corporations, fooling the world that they are better, more qualified or more deserving to be in such positions. It’s just a game, but it’s not like football where the persons performance can be easily measured.
I’ve met plenty of great CEO’s (in fact the person I’m referencing at the start of this post, is the best I’ve ever met) and I’ve worked for plenty of duds too. So don’t ever let someone tell you that you are not ready, or qualified for anything. Remember that everyone who ever made that level didn’t get there because of how good they were, they got there because of how good people thought they might be, or who their friends were. An entrepreneur on the other hand, gets to where they deserve entirely on their own performance.
I was lucky enough to be on a judging panel at Melbourne University with David Clarke the CEO of Webjet. A $500m company which he founded, floated and built. After the students gave their business pitches (the subject was Internet Marketing) he gave a simple closing speech with some poignant insights. Here’s a snippet.
“The internet is very seductive and has the capacity to hijack rational thought. There is a real disconnect between the on-line and real world. The trick is to connect the two. And the way that is usually done is through speed and cost advantage.”