“Power is the great aphrodisiac,” Henry Kissinger famously said. But not for me. My constant search over 25 years for more responsibility, control and power never led to any success in that department, sadly. What the journey did give me was a brutal lesson about the price involved with ambition. It’s a price to pay with great caution. Here’s why.
I wrote about this last week in a major industry on-line magazine. About 50 people emailed me, agreeing, disagreeing. I share it with Possum readers now. Here’s the story. A young man came to see me a few weeks ago. “Please help,” he asked. “I am 24. I want to be a CEO in my industry by age 35. How do I do it?” My heart sank. I saw myself sitting there, 30 years earlier. Same ambition. Same desire. I knew so well why he wanted it. But also knew the price he would have to pay to get there.
I concluded the very best advice I could give him was this. It’s harsh, but true, and from my heart. Maybe there is a message in it for you?
The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the better the view. But, the air is very, very thin.
Tread cautiously. Climbing the corporate ladder can be a very tough gig. I know. I have been CEO of several businesses and a CEO consistently for the past 25 years, until I took up my current role five years ago. At STW Group, I am not the CEO. I am, with our CFO, our CEO’s key partner. And here’s the fact- it is an easier life. Believe me.
There is absolutely a real buzz from being in charge. It can be exhilarating. It comes with a big price though. Of pressure, stress, long hours. They say it’s lonely at the top. And you know what? It bloody well is.
But if you’re hell bent on that path, and want to accelerate towards that first significant senior leadership or CEO gig, here are my Top Three Tips on how to do it. I have been prompted by Brian Tracy’s clarity and wisdom here, which helped me pinpoint so well what I know in my heart.
- Become brilliant at solving problems. Leadership is about solving problems. It comes with the territory. Almost everything I do every day – every email, phone call, meeting – is about a problem. As your career evolves and you get bigger jobs, the problems tend to be the same. Just the amount of money involved increases. So work on your skills as an awesome problem solver. Be a ‘solutions’ focused person. Build your brand as someone who takes on an issue, works out a solution, gets it done, pushes it through. Do that well, and you’ll be given more and bigger problems to solve. And you’ll get promoted faster than others. Promise.
- Work harder (and more effectively) than anyone else. Yeah yeah. I know it is old fashioned and not new age hug each other stuff. But face the facts. You want to turbo your career, then put in the hard yards. There are no short cuts. I reckon if you can work two hours more every day than others, then you will rise faster. Shock, horror. How can he say such an antiquated thing? I say it because it is TRUE. And make sure you are outstandingly productive and effective in that time, getting more of the important things done every day. Become a productivity ninja, and do it for longer than anyone else. As Vidal Sassoon told me, ‘The only place success comes before work is in a dictionary.’ So, be prepared for many years of genuinely long, hard, relentless work. Ask any of your CEOs if they made it without doing this? If they did, tell me. I just won’t believe it.
- Push yourself to the front. “Continually ask for more responsibility,” Brian Tracy wrote in his great book “Earn What You’re Really Worth.” Terrible title. Awesome book. (If you want to be a leader or CEO fast, read this book). I have a colleague in our Asia business. Young, talented, smart, hard working. When we started working together, I delegated cautiously to him. He did the work. He anticipated. He worked long hours. He solved problems before I needed to get involved. He asked for more rope. We gave it to him. He pushed harder. Worked harder. Focused his energies on problem solving. Started to assume more responsibility without asking. We let him do it. He now is doing a role someone with five years more experience should be doing. But he is doing it. I expect I’ll be reporting to him soon. And that would be fine too.
These are my top three tips. Become brilliant at solving problems. Work harder (and more effectively) than anyone else. Push yourself to the front. But do tread cautiously. Remember what a banker told me once.
“To be successful in this business is like having four hotplates… one is Family, one is Friends, one Health, the other Success. If you want Success, you will only have time to achieve one other hotplate. Which would you choose?” (Re-read that- please. Think about it. Carefully.) Now- he was talking about investment banking. Is it true of other industries? There are many examples of CEOs who have balance and have ensured all aspects of their lives have prospered. Then there are other leaders who can’t manage it all. Like lard arse, ‘ulcers R Us’ me. Go hard- be bold- but please, take care of yourself.