Skills Of A CEO – Within Reach Of A Strategic PM?

Some PM’s aspire to a CEO position. This post digs into this ambitious career objective, the required skills and attributes, strategy and project management as steppingstones to the CEO role, and attractive alternative career objectives.

CEO – Is It a Good Career Objective?

Skills Of A CEOThe answer is, “It depends.”

Every person is different, and each person has a capacity to lead, envision, and make things happen in different ways.

However, in thinking about what a CEO does, and what is required to be a CEO, striving to achieve a level of skill and capability to become a CEO seems like a worthy quest. While CEO’s can sometimes have a bad reputation in terms of politics and ethics, most – and the best – really do not.

Striving to ‘become’ all the things that a good and admirable CEO is can potentially lead to attaining a CEO position. Or it can lead to something else that is still highly respectable and maybe even more fulfilling.

Let’s start the inquiry by outlining the most important skills of a CEO.

Skills of a CEO: Skills & Attributes Most Important for a CEO

The above video provides a quick an impactful introduction and got me thinking. Of course, there’s more!

The role of a CEO is multifaceted, requiring a diverse skill set to effectively lead and manage an organization. To become a good and effective CEO, you must become somebody that takes ownership of a variety of skills and attributes.

Twelve (12) top skills and attributes for a CEO include:

  1. Leadership – CEO’s have exceptional leadership skills. They need to inspire, motivate, and guide their teams toward a shared vision while fostering a positive and productive work culture.
  2. Strategic Vision and Planning – CEOs must have a clear strategic vision for the company’s future and the ability to develop and execute comprehensive plans to achieve long-term goals.
  3. Decision-Making – CEOs must evaluate complex situations, weigh risks, and make sound judgments that align with the company’s objectives. Being decisive is crucial; they must make timely and informed decisions.
  4. Communication – Effective communication skills, including both verbal and written communication and public speaking, are essential. CEO’s need to articulate their vision, goals, and expectations clearly to various stakeholders, including employees, investors, customers, and the public.
  5. Adaptability and Flexibility – CEO’s operate in dynamic and ever-changing business environments. The ability to adapt to market shifts, technological advancements, and unforeseen challenges – and lead organizational pivots – is critical for success.
  6. Financial Acumen – Understanding financial statements, managing budgets, and making financially sound decisions are fundamental. CEO’s need a strong grasp of financial concepts, enabling them to ensure the company’s financial health and growth.
  7. Strategic Networking and Relationship Building – CEO’s need to build strong relationships with stakeholders, including investors, clients, partners, and industry leaders. This facilitates opportunities, partnerships,…and business growth.
  8. Innovation and Creativity – CEO’s need to encourage innovation and foster a culture of creativity within the organization – in varying degrees, depending on the industry. This drives competitiveness and growth in rapidly evolving markets.
  9. Problem-Solving – CEO’s encounter complex problems regularly. Strong problem-solving skills to identify, analyze, and resolve issues efficiently are essential.
  10. Resilience and Emotional Intelligence – CEO’s need to navigate high-pressure situations, setbacks, and failures with resilience. Emotional intelligence – self-awareness, empathy, and effective stress management – is crucial in handling these challenges.
  11. Strategic Delegation – CEO’s need to be effective at delegating responsibilities and empowering the right individuals within the organization. This is key to optimizing productivity and fostering a capable leadership team.
  12. Ethical Leadership – CEO’s need to uphold strong ethical values and integrity. This is vital for building trust with stakeholders and maintaining the company’s reputation.

These skills are collectively what enable CEO’s to steer organizations through complexities, drive growth, and lead teams toward achieving strategic objectives. It takes continuous development and refinement to develop these skills, which are essential for success in executive leadership.

Strategy As a Stop on the Path to CEO

There are many paths to the CEO role. A career in strategy can certainly be a good one.

Strategic expertise is highly valued at the executive level and is on the list in the section above. Professionals with a background in strategy often possess several qualities that are advantageous for CEO roles.

Here’s how a career in strategy can contribute to the journey toward becoming a CEO:

  1. Strategic Thinking – Strategists develop the ability to think critically, analyze complex situations, and envision long-term goals. This skill is crucial for CEO’s who need to set the direction and make decisions that align with the company’s overarching strategy.
  2. Visionary Leadership – Strategists often excel in setting a vision and defining a path forward – “Know the way, show the way, go the way”. CEO’s must have a strong vision for the company’s future and the ability to communicate and execute that vision.
  3. Analytical Skills – Strategy professionals are adept at gathering and analyzing data to make informed decisions. CEO’s must rely on data-driven insights – with an appreciation for the nuances – to make strategic choices that impact the company’s growth and performance.
  4. Risk Management – Understanding and managing risks is a key aspect of strategy, as well as project management. CEO’s need to assess risks associated with various decisions and initiatives, making strategic adjustments to mitigate potential pitfalls.
  5. Adaptability and Agility – Strategists often navigate dynamic environments and changing market conditions. CEO’s must be agile and adaptable – the ability to pivot – in responding to market shifts, emerging trends, and competitive challenges.
  6. Communication and Influence – Effective communication of the company’s strategy is essential for a CEO. Strategists who can articulate complex strategies in a clear and compelling manner can inspire confidence and support among stakeholders.
  7. Cross-Functional Collaboration – Strategy professionals typically work across different departments and functions. This experience prepares individuals for CEO roles, where collaboration across diverse teams and departments is essential for success.

A strong background in strategy can be a valuable foundation for aspiring CEO’s, it’s essential to complement this expertise with a broad understanding of various business functions, leadership experience, and a well-rounded skill set. CEOs often have multifaceted backgrounds, combining strategic acumen with experience in operations, finance, marketing, and other critical areas.

Moreover, gaining executive-level experience, such as serving in senior management positions or taking on leadership roles with broader responsibilities, can further enhance the prospects of transitioning into a CEO role. Continuous learning, professional development, and the cultivation of leadership abilities are crucial for individuals aspiring to become successful CEOs in the corporate world.

Project Management As a Stop on the Path to CEO

Leap from Project Manager to CEOIn his HBR article, “The Leap from Project Manager to CEO Is Hard – But Not Impossible”, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez provides and excellent survey of what PM skills might lead one to a CEO position. The summary to the article states,

“Project managers who aspire to be CEOs are often surprised to learn that their skills, while highly valuable, do not directly align with those needed for positions of executive leadership.”

However, note that many organizations are very project centric – such as construction, engineering, and consulting – so PM skills are core and critical. Other businesses, such as banks, consumer product companies, and manufacturing organizations have other core skills – such as finance, marketing, and operations – that would be more important than project management. If project management is a core skill in the business, then project management combined with some other key skills can provide a background that might lead to CEO.

So, project management can be a viable career path that leads to a CEO position, although it’s not a direct or guaranteed route – and it depends on the organization. Project management equips professionals with a range of valuable skills that are highly relevant in leadership and executive roles.

Here’s how project management experience can contribute to a CEO’s skill set:

  1. Leadership and Team Management – Overseeing teams and coordinating various stakeholders to achieve specific goals provides PM’s with experience in leading teams and managing people – crucial at higher levels of leadership.
  2. Strategic Planning – Developing and executing plans to achieve project objectives involves strategic thinking, setting goals, resource allocation, risk management, and adaptability – all CEO skills for setting the direction for an entire organization.
  3. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making – Grappling with challenges and uncertainties during projects hones a PM’s ability to analyze situations, make decisions, and solve problems efficiently which translates well into executive-level roles.
  4. Communication and Collaboration – Communicating effectively with team members, clients, stakeholders, and upper management is a fundamental PM skill that can translate well…where a CEO needs to convey the company’s vision, motivate employees, and engage stakeholders.
  5. Financial Acumen – Managing budgets and resources provides PM’s with a foundational understanding of financial management – knowledge that is crucial for a CEO that is responsible for the financial health and growth of a company.
  6. Adaptability and Change Management – Dealing with shifting project scopes, unexpected obstacles, and changing priorities provides a PM with experience in navigating change and adapting strategies – valuable in leading an organization through changing conditions.

Now all of these assume that the PM is gaining all of these different experiences. PM roles vary in terms of budget, analytical, planning, people management, and other dimensions of responsibility.

While project management skills can be beneficial for aspiring CEOs, it’s essential to complement this expertise with a broader understanding of business operations, finance, marketing, and other key areas. CEOs often have multifaceted backgrounds and experiences, combining various skills acquired through roles in different departments and industries.

Moreover, individuals aiming for the CEO position may need to seek opportunities for career advancement, gain experience in executive leadership roles, pursue further education (such as an MBA or executive programs), and continuously develop their leadership abilities to enhance their chances of ascending to the top leadership position in an organization.

What Are Alternatives If You Don’t Reach CEO?

What if you don’t reach CEO? And what if you decide you no longer aspire to that – but want to aspire to something that might even be better?!

Here are ten (10) alternative non-CEO career paths, all rewarding and impactful, for professionals who don’t ascend to the CEO position:

  1. Executive Leadership Roles – You can still aspire to a C-level position – like Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO), or other C-suite positions (like Chief Project Officer (CPO)?). These positions are very high level, involve significant responsibility, and contribute to shaping the company’s direction.
  2. Entrepreneurship – You may choose to start your own business, leveraging the skills, expertise, and industry knowledge you have gained to create and lead your venture.
  3. Consulting – You might find it interesting to transition into a consulting role, where you offer your expertise to advise and assist other companies in improving operations, strategy, management, projects, or specific areas within the business.
  4. Board Member or Advisor – Leverage your experience and network to serve on a corporate or non-profit board, or to acting as an advisor, which can allow you to provide guidance and strategic insight without being in an operational leadership role.
  5. Specialized Roles – A specialized role within a specific industry or function, such as data analytics, sustainability, human resources, project management, or compliance might be a nice fit for you. This can offer opportunities for leadership and impact.
  6. Academia or Education You may choose to share your knowledge and experience by transitioning into teaching, research, or educational leadership roles at universities, colleges, or training institutions.
  7. Nonprofit and Social Impact Work – You might like to work in the nonprofit sector, or to prioritize working for organizations focused on social impact allows. This can allow you to use your skills for causes that have special meaning to you.
  8. Public Service and Government Roles – You may enjoy serving in a government position or public service role at the local, state, or federal level, where you can add value by leveraging your private sector experience. You will get a different view of the world and may be able to influence policies, address societal issues, and make a positive impact on a larger scale.
  9. Freelancing or Contract Work – You might prefer a more flexible work lifestyle where you offer your expertise as a freelancer, consultant, or contractor, providing services on a project basis to multiple clients. PM skills will help!
  10. Career Transitions or Further Education – You might also consider transitioning to an entirely different career path or pursuing further education to explore new interests. You could gain additional qualifications that open doors to new opportunities.

As in organizations, we sometimes need to pivot. Inertia is not a good option! By being willing to pivot individually, you can open yourself to an alternative career opportunities where you can leverage your skills, expertise, and experiences and contribute meaningfully in various sectors and roles.

Career satisfaction and success can be achieved through different paths beyond reaching the CEO position!!

Summary and Further Resources

Many professionals, including PM’s, aspire to a CEO position. This post looked into this ambitious career objective, the required skills and attributes, strategy and project management as steppingstones to the CEO role, and attractive alternative career objectives.

While the chances of reaching the CEO position may be relatively low, it is possible, and there are also many attractive alternatives.

What are your thoughts on becoming CEO?

The following are further resources that you may find helpful:

4 Things that Set Successful CEO’s Apart” by Harvard Business Review, 2017.

And here’s another short (1 min) video on “Top 3 Qualities of a Great CEO”:

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