Four Unconventional Roads to the Corner Office

Who wants to be a CEO? More people than you’d think. According to a survey by Bentley University of college-educated young professionals, 78% aspire to a leadership role in whatever field they ultimately choose to work.

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell coined the now-famous “10,000 hours rule”. He theorized that reaching the highest levels in any endeavor – whether you’re Bill Gates or The Beatles – isn’t about just talent or genius, but the hours of practice you put in. The same applies in business. It’s all down to you… but there aren’t any shortcuts.

I don’t want to focus on the usual advice: Get a mentor. Mentor others. Consider going to business school. Take an active role in your community. Chances are, you’ve heard all of this many times before, and for good reason. For the record, I highly recommend each of these steps. But it might not be enough.

The truth is that to make it to the corner office, you’ll need to stand out from the dozens, maybe hundreds of others with the exact same dream, each prepared to do the same hard work to get there. This takes vision, and a whole lot of courage. It requires you to do things which may seemingly take you off the traditional career path, but actually fundamentally transform your perspective, capabilities and potential for success.

1. “Be yourself, everyone else is taken” – Oscar Wilde

When I joined Haskins & Sells (now known as Deloitte) in the 1970s, it was a major culture shock for a kid from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Back then, you got along in business by blending in, fitting in and playing the game. Four decades later... I’m glad to say things are very different. Businesses embrace diversity of backgrounds, and points of view.

As you work to develop your leadership skills and advance your career, don’t waste time trying to be someone you’re not. Be brave, embrace those things that make you different. By doing so, you’ll not only set yourself apart from the crowd, but perhaps more importantly, inspire those around you.

2. Fill up the pages of your passport.

In today’s increasingly globalized world, business leaders need truly international perspectives to be successful. Sign up for an international assignment if your company offers this – or even take a career break to travel. Use this time to understand cultures and countries different to your own. Or learn another language: new research suggests this can make you a more rational thinker and a better leader.

Sometimes travel changes our perspectives, and offers up new opportunities we hadn’t previously considered. Duncan Goose was an advertising director in the United Kingdom, when he took two years to travel the world on his motorbike. His experiences on the road inspired him to found The One Foundation in 2003, a bottled water brand which uses 100% of its profits to improve access to clean drinking water in the developing world.

3. One employer for life?

Working your way up within a company is just one path to a senior leadership role. This is what happened in my career (although during my career, I had many diverse jobs, roles and assignments). But it’s not the right path for everyone. In fact, according to a recent survey, today’s young professionals could have as many as 15 or even 20 jobs in their lifetimes. Consider whether your vision for business and your career is best realized within your existing company – or building your own.

Sam Morgan left his job at Deloitte New Zealand in 1999, to develop his start-up internet auction site Trade Me. By 2006, the site accounted for 60% of all web traffic in the country. That year, Trade Me sold for NZ$700 million, and Morgan became one of the richest people in New Zealand overnight.

4. Get a microphone.

If I was giving you traditional advice about developing your leadership career, I’d tell you to focus on developing your reputation and personal brand. To work hard to develop expertise in your respective area, and then become known for being great at what you do. There are many great books and online resources on this subject already to help you.

Here’s an idea to take it even further: share your expertise and unique point of view with others. As widely as possible. Give a talk. Start a blog. Write a book. (But always be mindful, once you put your thoughts out there, what you said and how you said it will be irretrievable).

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, was already a successful and respected executive within the technology industry. But it was her talks at big events (like TED and Davos) and her recent book Lean In which caused her profile to really take off outside of her own industry.

I’m very interested to hear your own unconventional advice for would-be CEOs and aspiring leaders. Please share your views in the comments section.

Barry Salzberg is the Global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.

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