After sifting through nearly four hours of recorded interviews, I finally realized the most challenging part of the process, extrapolating three articles out of a mountain of life-altering experiences. The recorded time represented, what I imagine to be, the best hours of a multi-year MBA program. It was direct from the source, leaders who had already achieved career success. They left me with two valuable lessons: the value of overcoming obstacles and the value in knowing: there is no one path to CEO.
“Overcoming challenges at a young age puts you in the mindset of ‘I can do this’. I think it’s important to have experience overcoming challenges or I don’t know how you anchor yourself,” said Caryn Seidman Becker, Chairman and CEO of Clear.
Overcoming obstacles is not unique to CEO’s or to business. However, CEO’s often seem more capable of hurdling challenges, and in extracting meaning from them. It is often this trait that elevates them up the corporate ladder, commanding respect and admiration on each rung along the way.
“Just know that as you tackle your challenges, there is a next phase of the journey,” said Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, Inc. “If you like embracing new things and new places, you have a long journey ahead of you to enjoy. It’s almost like you just discovered Game of Thrones and you are only on episode 3 of the first season. Just know that you have eight amazing seasons ahead of you.”
While positive change can result from overcoming obstacles, the most profound life alterations are generally the result of the most difficult obstacles.
Mohamad Ali, CEO of Carbonite, endured deeply tragic personal loss before his time at HP with Meg Whitman. The loss led to a dramatic shift in his attitude, both personally and professionally.
“Nothing worse than what had happened to me could happen here,” he said, speaking of his time at HP. “With that fearless approach we were able to dramatically transform the business,” said Ali. The stock price of HP dropped from 17 to 11 when that corporate transformation was announced. It was 37 dollars a share when Ali left.
Michael Keeler, CEO of LeaseAccelerator, Inc., echoed Ali’s thoughts on dealing with challenges. His obstacles were faced in his professional life.
“You learn so much more on the downswing of a company than you do on the upswing,” Keeler said. “On the downswing you learn what it is to make and keep commitments and the pain of not being able to keep those commitments.”
If the quantity and quality of obstacles overcome is an accurate indicator of success, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that those tasked with facing the highest and most severe challenges are the most successful? According to Ali, that equation commonly holds true for many immigrants.
“You learn how to scramble when you start out with next to nothing. You have to be extremely creative,” said Ali, who in addition to serving as the CEO of Carbonite, is also an author of a Harvard Business Review piece on immigration and U.S. competitiveness. “When you look at the number of Fortune 500 companies that have been started by immigrants or children of immigrants it is something like 40 [percent].” This is despite the fact that immigrants have only made up 10.5 percent of the American population on average since 1850. Whether this unique drive to “make it” can be learned in the absence of a difficult childhood? According to Ali, it can.
“Yes, and it comes from a number of places,” he said. “You don’t need to necessarily be poor. There is something about learning to make the most of what you have. You don’t need the immigrant experience to learn to do things well, but I think the immigrant experience tends to sort of self-select those people.”
No One Clear Path to CEO
“Whatever everyone thinks, and with all due respect, there are a lot of successful people out of Harvard Business School, but that this very specific path that you think is a CEO path, is a leadership path, is a business school path; there is no one path,” said Caryn Seidman Becker, Chairman and CEO of Clear.
“Steve Jobs, everyone knows his background, but look at Ed Breen. He sold cable boxes for General Instruments and then he was the CEO of a little cable box company out of Horsham, Pennsylvania. Now he is the CEO of DuPont,” Becker said. “There is no one straight road. No one specific background.”
While there isn’t one specific track to CEO, Ali believes that there are “three categories of skills that a great leader needs” including:
Strategy: “The strategy piece comes from that a lot of people are good at a narrow area, but I think the people who become CEO’s have the ability to look across multiple different segments of business, segments of society, and find that intersection where something is happening,” Ali said.
Execution: “If you are a great strategist, but you are terrible at the details and the analytics of how you are going to get there, you’ll never get there.”
Inspiration: “The one piece that has been really helpful to me, and this goes back to my history degree, is being able to communicate all of that. To inspire people to execute to that strategy that you have put together.”
Kevin Akeroyd, CEO of Cision, lobbied for the importance of a fourth skill: communication. “If you are a good communicator you can bring the creative types, the extroverts and the introverts.” But, Akeroyd added that at the end of the day, “the number one governor on what you can accomplish is what you believe.”
The Final Chapter
Throughout the course of my interviews, the executives discussed the traits and backgrounds that begot their success:
The most impressionable part of the interviews, however, was not the specific advice the CEO’s provided, but the conviction with which they provided it. Rarely do you see that level of confidence. Corporate executives were not only applying these principles to their personal lives, but governing thousands of employees using them. It’s a testament to the words of the Abbess, La Mère Angèlique, “perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” Six people have nearly perfected the art.
Just imagine six billion.
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