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  1. Blog
  2. Advancement

How to Become a CEO: Ladder-Climbing from University to C-Suite

Up, up, and away she goes

Woman laughing while sitting at her laptop
Photo courtesy of Mateus Campos Felipe

This past year saw the highest number of Fortune 500 companies with women CEOs in history. It’s great progress, but we still have a long way to go since the record number only represented 37 (7.4 percent) of the top 500 companies. Representation for women of color is even lower—there are only three women CEOs of color on the list. In March of this year, Rosalind Brewer will become the only Black woman running a company on the list

Since having a diverse C-suite—including more women in top management positions—leads to higher financial performance, attracts more top female talent, yields more innovation, and is an overall fair and necessary step toward gender equality, it’s crucial to enable and equip more women to climb the corporate ladder. It’s worth noting that many CEOs don’t have a “typical” career trajectory, but these are a few standard measures and tips that can better help you to land a spot at the top.

Read more: Women in the Workplace Primer: 19 Terms You Need to Know

From university to C-Suite, here’s how to become a CEO: 

Earn a bachelor’s degree

If you're starting your own business, your degree may be less relevant, but that’s the exception to the rule. The typical first requirement of becoming a CEO is earning a bachelor’s degree. Although it’s possible to become a CEO with any bachelor’s degree, a degree focused in management, business, or finance is a good start to give you the preliminary skills and knowledge you’ll need down the line. 

Career strategist Cynthia Pong says the networks that come with a university degree sometimes matter more than the degree itself: “more important are the networks that come with having a certain degree from a particular institution–having an "in" with that crowd, and getting the benefit of the doubt from a fellow alum [will help get you to the top].”

Read more: 6 Jobs for Finance Majors You Haven’t Thought Of

Gain work experience

The corporate ladder climb is a marathon, not a sprint. Unless you’re starting your own company, you have to work up to the C-suite level. Employees typically begin their professional career with an entry-level position. In an entry-level position, it’s important to take advantage of every learning and training opportunity—don’t limit yourself to only the tasks required of your current position. Work with a “can do” attitude, track quantifiable results, and get to know coworkers. 

From there, the typical trajectory moves from an entry-level position, to a general management position, to a higher operational position like COO or CFO. In each role, practice time management, adaptability, public speaking, and problem-solving to be a better leader. 

Read more: 7 Ways to Schmooze Your Network (the Right Way)

Earn a graduate’s degree or professional certification

While it’s not required, earning a graduate degree can certainly increase your chances of becoming CEO. 

Degrees like an MBA, JD, MD, or master’s not only give you a wider repertoire of skills and knowledge, the degrees themselves carry clout—especially if they are from notable institutions, Pong says. 

Read more: How to Decide if You Should Go to Grad School

Master’s and doctorate degrees can further your understanding of your own employees and company culture as well. For example, Vitamix CEO Jodi Berg pursued her Ph.D. in management while she was an executive. Berg conducted three research studies to better understand the difference between people who are higher “purpose” driven and people who are “goal” driven and also sought to understand how the purpose of an organization and an employee’s personal purpose have an effect on their job. She now accredits these studies with propelling her career forward. 

Similarly, professional certificates usually aren’t required to become a CEO, but it’s another asset to help you secure a spot at the top. Examples of professional certifications might include:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

  • Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP)

  • Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP)

Read more: How to List Certifications on Your Resume

Hone your skills

As with most jobs, CEOs need to have a variety of skill sets in order to succeed. Pong says, “Super strong leadership, communication (including deep listening), conflict management, negotiation, and strategic thinking skills [are essential]. Plus, the ability to develop, fight for, and galvanize others around a vision.”

While you move up the ladder in a company, it’s imperative to demonstrate these skills along the way to prove you’ve mastered the nitty-gritty, operational details. As you climb, your approach will begin to shift and be less focused on the internal, operational details and more on the external, long-term details like how the organization presents its vision and interfaces with the outside world.

Humility and social intelligence are two other top skills for the most successful CEOs. Progressive Insurance CEO Tricia Griffith says that knowing when to lead and when to get out of the way was one of the biggest lessons she learned in her first year at Progressive. 

While a lot of the skills necessary to lead efficiently are soft skills, hard skills are often required as well depending on the industry and how involved the CEO is in daily operations. Here are examples of different types of hard skills:

  • Technical: CRM platforms, research, payment processing

  • Computer: MS Office, Google Drive, database management

  • Marketing: SEO/SEM, UX design, Google analytics 

  • Management: Scrum management, performance tracking, budgeting

Read more: 6 Soft Skills That Stand Out in Today's Job Market

More tips for climbing to the top

Whether you just secured an entry-level position or have been mid-level for awhile and aspire to become CEO, keep these tips from Pong in mind:

  • Start planning early. Surround yourself with people who are ahead of you in terms of their pathway, study their career trajectories, and develop relationships with them.

  • Relationships are huge. Women (and women of color especially) need to cultivate mentors, sponsors, and champions who will open doors to the higher positions. 

  • Don’t get bogged down in "doing the work." Once you start moving up the management ladder, you will need to lead with confidence. Get the training and support that you need to excel.

  • Don’t fall in the trap of always letting your work speak for itself. Get comfortable telling people about your work, accomplishments, and successes. Make a case for the work you do to the “gatekeepers”—they need to know what you’re doing in order to vouch for you.

  • Don't be afraid to leave your job for another. If you don’t feel like there’s room for advancement in your current company, take a leap and apply to new jobs or start your own company if you have an idea. 

Read more: How to Delegate Like a Boss

About our source

Cynthia Pong, JD, is a feminist career strategist, speaker, and author of Don't Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color. A LinkedIn Top Voice for Job Search and Career, she is frequently sought out to provide highly relevant, super applicable, easy-to-understand career advice specifically for women of color.

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