Is a burning desire what it takes to become the CEO of a big company? Not even close. I spent the last four years interviewing the leaders of such companies, and they revealed to me that their most important lesson in life was… not wanting to become the CEO.
If you find that hard to believe: so did I. After all, it’s rather easy to look down from the top, and downplay what it took to get there. But if you dig a little deeper, less gracious stories will appear, right? Aren’t CEOs women and (mostly) men who have a “take no prisoners, stab people in the back” attitude? How else could they survive and thrive in the corporate rat race?
Yet that is not what I found. Becoming a CEO is perhaps more like becoming pope: of that position they also say that wanting the job is like a kiss of death. But why is that? And what, then, is good preparation if you want to get ahead in your career? Here’s some answers I got from people at the top when researching my book, Before I Was CEO.
“You shouldn’t try to become a CEO,” Paul Bulcke, the CEO of Nestle, the largest food group in the world, told me, “because it’s arrogant. It’s likely to turn you into an unhappy person, as you put your goal in life in the future, and it indicates you are not concerned with doing a good job in the position you have.” It’s better, he said, to enjoy doing what you are doing, while you are doing it, and only aim for a next job when you feel ready. “Il faut laisser du temps au temps – you should give time some time."
Chris Burggraeve put it differently. “I could not have aimed to become CMO of AB InBev if I wanted to,” the former Chief Marketing Officer of brewer Anheuser-Busch Inbev, said. “The function of chief marketing officer did not exist yet when I was young, and neither did the company I ended up working for [AB InBev was the result of the 2007 merger of Anheuser Busch and InBev, now the largest brewer in the world].”
The reasoning behind those two arguments is different, but the conclusion is the same. Even if you do think you should become a powerful executive, it’s pointless to make it a goal early in your career. It will make you unhappy for a large period of time, and either way, you never know what the future will bring.
So what should you be spending your time on instead? Patrick De Maeseneire, the former CEO of Adecco said you simply shouldn’t think about your career until you turn 30 or 35. “You’re very malleable in your twenties, and you should use that time to gain many different experiences,” he said. It can be to travel and learn languages, to work in different companies or industries, or to find your passion and expertise.
Paul Bulcke did just that. He first went to Peru for 6 years, then Chile and Ecuador. Far away from the headquarters, he didn’t appear on the radar of Vevey until his thirties, and that was fine. “I made sure my function was in line with my ability,” he said. He kept making progress, but didn’t miss a step in the process. “My career was like a bicycle: it also keeps in balance because it moves ahead.”
Being in the field, he could work on his communication and cultural skills, managing a group of people who had a very different culture and language. To this day, his Spanish language skills (and his German, which he learned later in his career) come in very handy, as head of a global company. He also learned to deal with crises, as Peru at the time was plagued by terrorism.
He also learned to sell and do marketing. He remembered, for example, how he made his sales rounds early in the day in Lima. In the slums, cash was king: if you came in the morning, you could get paid. If you came later in the day, other suppliers had sold to people before you. He also learned to be creative on a shoestring budget: Peru was a small country for Nestle, so any promotion he made also had to be low budget. He made his own scripts, and his family performed cameos in his commercials. Instead of putting signs by the road he also painted houses in the colors of his products.
At the end of the day, talent always rises to the surface. But there is no need to rush to the top. “If you go up like a rocket, you will fall down like a stone,” Patrick De Maeseneire told me. He had learned that lesson himself when he was denied a promotion early in his career. The truth is, a career lasts for 40 years (and increasingly even longer). That truly is a marathon, and the best thing to do in the first quarter of it is to make you are well prepared for the rest of it. Don’t try to become CEO - enjoy the ride instead. Carpe Diem. Or as rapper Coolio once put it: “I’ll see you when you get there / if you ever get there.”
This article first appeared in German on Business Insider Deutschland.