What it Takes to be a CEO: The Path to the Top

This is the first part of a three part series. Click here for part II.

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A partisan world rarely celebrates individuality, teaching us to reject our differences rather than to revere them. To place uniformity over creation. To contrast rather than to compare. In search of an occupation that rewards diversity, innovation, and differentiation, I found a lightning rod for talking points — most often for cynical reasons (compensation levels, moral bankruptcy, etc.)— that is rarely understood at the human level. The position of Chief. Executive. Officer.

In the aftermath of one of the worst financial crises in contemporary history, was our vilification of the most successful entrepreneurs, directors, and market-movers warranted? Was there anything we could learn from their mistakes or tribulations? Just how exactly does the mind of a corporate leader work? I set off on a journey to interview some of the most brilliant minds in business. Six interviews. Hours of questions. One goal. To find out what exactly it takes to be a CEO. 

Anecdotal Inspiration                                                              

“I had done this science fair project and I had won this national contest called the Westinghouse National Science Talent Search,” said Mohamad Ali, CEO and President of Carbonite, Inc., the publicly traded data protection company that has found a niche in the growing market of cybersecurity. In less than three years under his leadership, Carbonite has seen its stock price soar over 60 percent.

“I was invited by the Israeli Government to study at one of their universities to work on their linear accelerator. I got a glimpse into the history of our world and our planet unlike anything I had ever seen,” continued Ali.

“Then I came back [to the U.S.] and when I started at Stanford one of the first classes I took was a History class. It was a graduate class. I ended up taking so many History classes that I got a History degree. Today having an understanding of different peoples, different cultures, and societies. That is probably much, much more important today than my technical background.”

An innate desire to learn what you simply can’t in a textbook, it was a common theme throughout virtually all of my interviews. CEO’s wanted to see the world through a diversity contoured lens. Having been raised in the monoethnic state of Wyoming, which is nearly 93% white, it was a passion I could understand.

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Focus and Commitment

Most CEO’s can be bifurcated into two categories: those where becoming a CEO was the result, and those where becoming a CEO was the destination. Kevin Akeroyd, CEO of Cision, the “earned media” company, which targets social brands, is firmly in the latter.

“I told myself when I was an undergraduate, getting a bachelor of arts in business administration I wanted to be the CEO of a company by the time I was 40, and a public company CEO by the time I was 50. I worked backwards. Where do I have to be 19 years from now? Where do I have to be in 18 years? I literally walked backwards, almost like a staircase. A 20 step staircase and each step represented a year.”

The business of process reengineering is literally nothing new for the corporate elite. A third of the Standard & Poor’s 500 CEO’s have an undergraduate degree in engineering. However, effectively reengineering an entire career and having it play out according to plan is rare, even for the most fortunate. How did Akeroyd manage to pull it off? In his words: focus and commitment.

“So many people I know, one, don’t even figure out what it is they want to do until later in life. Two, they don’t really have the focus and discipline to say that’s a hard roadmap with multiple steps and I can’t get there all at once and I better plan my course. It’s almost like planning a trip. You better know where the restaurants and rest stops are. You get there faster, easier, and with less trouble.”

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The roadmap comparison draws my intrigue. Akeroyd has used it to back out segment destinations, giving him realistic goals over a shorter time frame. Conceptually, it seems rather intuitive. Yet, in goal oriented, academic and career lectures hardly is that strategy ever used. Just one of the many ways in which great innovators manage to see the same thing in a different light. Perception is everything.

Work-Life Balance? It’s Just Called Life.

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It has often been said that the most valuable commodity isn’t money, but time. CEO’s often operate in a homogenized environment, where it is difficult to differentiate between time and money. In such a place, time management, rather than time, often reigns supreme. If you don’t control it, it will control you. The CEOs I interviewed had no magic solutions or innovative strategies to mitigate the burden of time, they combatted it with traditional measures used in extraordinarily disciplined ways.

“I think I slept four hours a night for fifteen years,” laughed Akeroyd. “You have to make sure that work and family get enough of the pie chart. Unfortunately the personal life, you have to rationalize it.”

Dennis Chookaszian, who spent nine years as Chairman and CEO of the multi-billion dollar CNA Insurance, and who currently serves on the Board of Directors for 26 companies, went even further.

“There are three things you have in your life: you have your work, you have your family, and you have your personal life. The answer is pick two because you can’t do three.”

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“For those who pick work as one of the top two, then you have to think how you are going to approach it,” continued Chookaszian. “If you want to be a CEO or a top level person, there is no such thing as a work/life balance, it is a work/work balance. The work must be the top priority, except for family emergencies. If work isn’t the number one item, you can’t succeed. I have to plan family like I plan any other business meeting.”

I asked Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora, Inc., the Silicon Valley enterprise software company, striving to revolutionize the subscription economy by providing billing, commerce, and finance systems through its Saas applications, if there was ever a time out of the day that he wasn’t thinking about his company?

“Has to be 24/7 because it’s on your mind,” said Tzuo. “But you will burn out if you don’t find balance and if you can’t disconnect.”

Caryn Seidman Becker, Chairman and CEO of Clear, the company striving to make airport security lines a thing of the past, manages to get “five to six hours of sleep” per night.

“I don’t think there is a work/life balance. I think it’s just called life.”

Just don’t ask Becker to sleep on that belief. For her, it’s just another day in the life of a CEO.