4 Critical Steps to Tee-Up Your Career as CEO

Here’s what you need to do to get in the driver’s seat. By Joseph Gulfo

A wise entrepreneur once told me, “The first CEO is rarely the last CEO.” He went on to explain that the skill set required to start a company is very different than the talent set needed to grow and manage a successful business. He also explained that there are natural serial passages through which startups progress, and the leader who starts the ball rolling with a discovery or insight is rarely, if ever, the one who moves it all the way through product development and presides over $1B in sales.

If you love startups and want to run them, what should you do? The founders are the people best suited for the very early discovery and proof of concept work. But after that, consummate professional leaders are needed to shepherd the company through each critical juncture. It is almost unheard of for a founder to pass the reins; that is the job of the venture capitalists to make happen.

So, how do you T yourself up to a VC?

Simple–follow the T paradigm (see diagram, below):

  1. Develop extraordinary skill at one critical function. You need to become “untouchable” in this area, which typically flows from your undergraduate and graduate degrees. In order to achieve the required level of expertise, it means spending five to 10 intense years accumulating in-depth skills, and amassing some high profile accomplishments. You need to be considered beyond reproach. This is the vertical portion of the T; think of it as a series of blocks that are stacked 10 high–you need to check-off every one of those 10 depth boxes.
  2. Identify the other important areas for the business to succeed and line them across the top–this is the horizontal portion of the T. Show competence (3-5 depth levels) in the most critical horizontal breadth boxes and some level (1-3 depth levels) of experience in as many of the others as possible. Begin to seek out responsibilities within your company and other jobs that will allow you to demonstrate competence at these skills. Getting an MBA in finance and then raising money for a company is one of the things that I did to round-out my hardcore medical/R&D vertical portion of the T. I also became a board member, consummated business development deals, and led joint operating committees between companies, which also helped me expand the horizontal portion.
  3. Position yourself–see how the experiences you have line up on the horizontal and vertical portion of the T align with the needs of companies in the sector and construct a curriculum vitae that tells the story of how you can add value. Understand your niche, and seek out opportunities. By the time you have checked all 10 boxes in the vertical portion of the T, and five out of eight on the horizontal portion, you will have enough contacts, particularly among investors, to be considered a wise choice.
  4. Audit yourself–once you become the second or third CEO, the whole shooting match is now your responsibility. Perform a very critical self-audit. Hire the best people you can find who possess the skills you do not have, which the company needs to be successful. The most critical areas will be in the unchecked boxes on the horizontal portion of the T. Drop the ego and supplement yourself, even in areas you have checked-off, which require more depth than you have accumulated. Then, you won’t just be the CEO, you’ll be a good CEO with more longevity than most.

The T approach continues to work for me.

You’re the one who has to manage your own career. Do so by carefully picking what you want to do, once you’ve seen enough to have an informed view. Then you need to become untouchable at a critical function. Next, you should gain as much experience and competence at the other critical, as well as important, functions as possible. Position and package yourself, leverage your contacts, and then attack.

This article was written by Joseph Gulfo and initially appeared in inc.com

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