Climbing the Ladder: Taking the Steps to Become a CEO

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CEO stands in her office while observing visual business metrics outside of her window.

With the rise of multinational corporations, many people’s livelihoods depend on the effective leadership of these massive operations. A CEO is an organization’s highest-ranking executive and as such is often tied to its success or failure. Moreover, CEOs are largely public figures, with executives such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mary Barra receiving high praise for their deft business sense. For people who want to drive a company’s success, becoming a CEO is an excellent career goal to set.

Steps to Become a CEO

Before you become the highest ranking executive of an organization, these are some steps you can take to increase your chances as a candidate and gain the skills you need to perform the job well.

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in a field such as economics, finance or management lets students gain expertise in the quantitative and qualitative aspects of business. For instance, students can gain an understanding of the theoretical background of various business operations, and they can learn the technical skills needed to adhere to these theories. Moreover, students will be exposed to real-world scenarios in which these skills will come into play, such as balancing budgets and understanding market projections. After earning a bachelor’s degree, students would do well to gain some experience in a nonsupervisory administrative role to give them a better overall understanding of how a company functions and make them more attractive to potential employers.

Step Two: Complete an MBA

A master’s degree can help candidates stand out for high-ranking executive positions. Master’s degrees are common among the highest-ranking employees: At Fortune 100 companies, nearly 40% of the CEOs earned a Master of Business Administration (MBA). MBA programs provide individuals with a wide breadth of business know-how that leads to effective leadership. Moreover, an MBA signals to employers that a candidate is ready to enter the fast-paced world of business.

Step Three: Gain Relevant Job Experience

CEO candidates are expected to bring management experience to the table. Becoming a top business executive isn’t confined to a single path. For instance, some MBA graduates choose to work on multiple client accounts for a consulting company to develop their business expertise before they commit to a full-time role with a single organization. Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns began working for the company as a summer intern. From there, she worked her way up to various positions, such as executive assistant and vice president of global manufacturing, and eventually made her way to the top of the corporate ranks. Operations, which involves product or service production, may be the best area to gain experience, as three-quarters of Fortune 100 CEOs started out there.

Skills Needed to Be a Successful Executive

No two CEOs tackle management in exactly the same way, but certain common skills can bridge the gap between good and great leadership.

  • Communication. One of the most important steps to becoming a CEO is building a network of connections. Communication skills are key. By attending industry events, getting to know professionals in similar roles in other companies and learning from those who work in higher roles, individuals can forge important business connections that lead to greater opportunities.
  • Personal drive. Aspiring CEOs must stay committed to personal growth through relentless pursuit of their goals. Many CEOs have overcome myriad obstacles to get where they are, and it was their drive that enabled them to meet these challenges head on.
  • Experience in the field. CEOs typically accumulate experience in a company by taking on numerous roles. Board members select an internal candidate to become CEO 79% of the time, according to Forbes, due to the candidate having prior experience with the company. By gaining experience in lower-level roles before attempting to make the jump to the top, candidates can learn valuable company insights. By understanding the ways different levels of the company function, executives gain valuable knowledge to inform their managerial decision-making.
  • Leadership. Since CEOs are the highest level of executive, they’re responsible for leading large groups of individuals. Leadership involves numerous components, such as demonstrating confidence in one’s abilities while also allowing employees to feel that their voices are being heard. It’s important to gain experience as a leader for smaller teams before attempting to take on more expanded roles.

Ready to Take Steps to Become a CEO?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual pay for chief executives was $189,600, as of May 2018, yet compensation varies by industry. Chief executives in manufacturing as well as professional, scientific and technical services earned an average of $208,000 or more; health care and social assistance, $173,770; and government, $110,830. Many CEOs also have access to various perks, such as company vehicles, exclusive club memberships and lavish expense accounts.

Climbing the corporate ladder can be a challenge, but determination and hard work are rewarded in the world of business. You can make choices to position yourself for success. One of those choices is checking out the online master’s in business administration. Students have an opportunity to gain business skills that can directly translate into reaching the highest corporate ranks.

Recommended Readings

How to Hire Employees You Can Trust

What Makes Leadership in Business So Important?

Six Types of Business Management Careers: A Comprehensive Guide


Forbes, “How To Become a CEO: These Are the Steps You Should Take”

Forbes, If You Want To Be ‘CEO Material,’ Develop These 15 Traits

Investopedia, “The Path To Becoming a CEO”

Rider University, Master of Business Administration

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Top Executives