CEO Skills Aug, 2023

How do you become a FTSE100 CEO?


The role of CEO is multifaceted, encompassing strategic planning, decision-making, leadership, financial management, stakeholder engagement, and overall accountability for the company’s performance and success. It’s a challenging and influential position that requires a combination of business acumen, leadership skills, and a clear vision for the future of the organisation.

Of course if you’ve built a business yourself from day one and overcome the obstacles business growth frequently presents this is likely to work in your favour.

However, looking at the career path of the current FTSE100 CEOs it’s striking that, whatever their initial specialism, virtually all are professional managers rather than entrepreneurs. While it’s undoubtedly a challenging career path that relies heavily on considerable experience, hard graft the support of those around you, there is enough data of recent CEOs that gives a clear idea of what route you need to do to achieve this.

A recent Raconteur article took this one step further to carefully analyse the career path of the current FTSE 100 CEOs and it identified some interesting trends.

Of the 65 CEOs that were appointed internally, half had been with their company for more than a decade, proving that loyalty and moving up through the ranks is a legitimate path to the top.

One great example of this outside the FTSE100 is Mary Barra, who joined General Motors aged 18 in 1980 in a role that involved her checking fender panels and inspecting hoods. Twenty four years later Mary was appointed CEO and is considered one of the world’s most powerful women.

In addition to working your way up, other CEOs were brought in at senior level before being promoted to CEO, like Dr Charles Woodburn who became CEO at BAE Systems just over a year on from joining the company as COO.

Of course there will often be exceptions and people who following less conventional routes to the C-suite include:

  • Andy Bird of Pearson, who started working as a radio producer before making a significant pivot moving to media giants Warner Media and Walt Disney
  • Michael Murray, an estate agent who was positioned as Frasers Group’s CEO by his father-in-law, Mike Ashley
  • Emma Walmsley of GSK, who studied classics at Oxford

Covid has changed things, with external CEO appointments becoming twice as common since the pandemic. This could be attributed to the new challenges for businesses that lockdown presented.

While we can identify trends from the career path of the current FTSE100 CEOs, Harvard Business Review wins the prize for the most granular analysis, with their CEO Genome Project, conducted over a decade with a data-set of over 17,000 C-suite executives.

They surmised that if you achieve the role of CEO in less than 24 years you’re a ‘CEO sprinter’ who has made bold moves throughout their career, or ‘career catapults’, to get to the top. They honed these catapult moves into the three specific areas:

1) Go Small To Go Big

More than 60% of sprinters either took a step back for a role with bigger potential in their career, whether it was starting their own business, moving to a bigger role but within a smaller organisation or launching a new area at an existing business proving that sometimes you have to move backwards or sideways to get ahead.

2) Make a Big Leap

The clue is in the title here. More than a third of sprinters had agreed to an opportunity even when the role was well beyond anything they’d done previously and they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead. Naturally this can come with risks but, in these instances, it certainly paid off.

3) Inherit a Big Mess

Whether it’s turning around an underperforming business or a failed product, navigating a business through turbulent times is another key theme of sprinters. Afterall, a business that’s in crisis will cry out for strong leadership skills. It could also be said that this experience of this type of situation is a great way to prepare for the role of CEO.

However, while sharing aspirational studies that attempt to map your path to the boardroom, it’s also important to acknowledge those more sinister barriers that might prevent someone from progressing. For example, according to Korn Ferry, it’s likely to take women 30% longer than men to get a CEO role and that’s before considering intersectional factors like race, sexuality, ethnicity or class.

This builds on the point that becoming a CEO is not for the faint hearted, but if you’re prepared to push yourself out of your comfort zone on a daily basis, plunge headfirst into new, bigger opportunities and are willing to take unconventional career moves in the name of growth it might just be your perfect role.

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