January 14

How to become the next CEO



When you think of a CEO, who do you think of?

Steve Jobs?

Bill Gates?

Jeff Bezos?

It’s tempting to think that being the next CEO requires an out of this world genius. You need to be a visionary.

You need to be charismatic.


Well, the answer is no.

The greatest predictor for those who rose to CEO positions…

Drum roll please….



You must be kidding me.

In Elena Botelho and Kim Powell’s book, The CEO Next Door, they studied 2600 leaders. They analysed 17,000 assessments. They tried to understand what were the predictors of success for CEOs.

Reliability was the only factor that increased both the person’s odds of getting hired and his odds of excelling on the job.

CEOs who are known for being reliable are fifteen times more likely to be high performing, and their odds of getting hired are double those of everyone else.

Why reliability?

You might be wondering why reliability?

Reliability might sound boring. Isn’t it about fiery leadership?

Compared to how charismatic Elon Musk is when he’s parading his Tesla cars, reliability might seem a poor predictor of success.

What’s reliability anyway?

Reliability is being a safe pair of hands.

It’s about being dependable.

It’s about delivering what you say you will.

People trust you.

Remember the ‘trust fall’ in your high school camps? Where you had to stand on a raised platform, with 8 people’s hands stretched out beneath you?

Lean back, and let yourself drop?


Being reliable builds trust. Your colleagues, your clients and your boss trust that you will deliver.

Action matters more than anything else.

You know that colleague in the office.

The one who always talks, but never delivers.

You don’t like him very much, right?

Well, that’s why reliability matters.

Because actions matter more than words.

When you say you will do something, there is no doubt that you will do it.

Because you are reliable.

Don’t let a seed of doubt develop by under-delivering or not delivering what you’ve agreed on with others.

People will find it hard to trust you again.

Reliability is about delivery without drama.

Mary Berner, the CEO of Cumulus Media, got her first CEO position at Fairchild Publications, as the publisher of the Glamour magazine because of her reputation for ‘delivery without drama’.

Reliability is about meeting expectations of you.

Before even wondering how to exceed expectations, you need to meet them.

Consistently, accurately, daily.

There becomes no doubt that you can deliver.

Like clockwork.

Build a reputation for yourself where you consistently deliver without dropping the ball.

People start trusting you with bigger things.

Because you do the small things well, consistently.

Reliability is about moving towards progress.

Ever wondered how babies grow?

One centimetre at a time.

One thing at a time.

As a junior employee, you might be frustrated that you aren’t achieving outsized success. Things seem to be moving too slowly!

But you’re moving, however slow it might seem.

That matters.

Before long, you will see the fruits.

Reliability helps people around you to see that you are following through on actions, and moving the work towards completion.

Nothing makes employees more satisfied and fulfilled and enthusiastic about their work than making progress.

Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School

It’s progress, not perfection, that matters.

How do you become more reliable?

Do the small things well.

As a junior employee, things can sometimes be frustrating. You feel like you can’t lead from the bottom.

You feel like following your passion into this field… just didn’t work out.

You feel like you’re just the paper boy, asked to do small and insignificant things.

However frustrating they are, deliver on them.

Be dependable in the small things.

As Elena and Kim shared in their book, the habits of highly reliable leaders, weren’t that fancy after all.

Their habits are as follows:

  • Appear for meetings, calls, conferences, on time.
  • Deliver things on time.
  • Make individual commitments (who is doing what by when) clear in meetings.
  • Always follow up on your own agreed upon actions.

how to become CEO
It’s all about the follow-up.

These things sound simple. But are they simple to do?


When was the last time you appeared a minute late for a call? Or missed a call?

It can be a minute, a second, it’s still being late.

Being late shows a lot about your dependability. If people can’t even trust you with being early, how can they trust you with bigger projects?

Make meetings matter.

Meetings can be confusing. You walk in, spend an hour, and walk out…

Equally confused.

Add some structure to that meeting.

Here’s what Brené Brown, the vulnerability researcher, recommends.

I’ve adapted it.

  1. State clearly what the objective and agenda of the meeting is, a day in advance.
  2. 10 minutes before the end of the meeting, ensure that the key decisions and the actions moving forward are agreed upon.
  3. Ensure each person knows what he/she is supposed to do.
  4. Send out the minutes in 3 days.
  5. Follow through by asking for an update during the due date.

Have diabolical follow-through

Bill Amelio, the former CEO of Apple, is known for his ‘diabolical follow-through’.

Ensure accountability to one’s agreement. If someone says they will do something, make sure they do it.

You might already know this.

It’s not agreed actions that matter. It’s the follow-through that matters.

You probably have had that experience where someone agrees to do something for the team.

You wait a month. Two.

Still, nothing appears.

You wonder if it’s ever going to appear.

Then you think:

But I’m a junior employee! How can I ask someone to do something?

Well, communicate with them.

Ask them for an update.

More often than not, people will get the hint. And they will get to work.

Manage expectations.

You don’t deliver, because you can’t deliver.

As a junior staff, you might think you need to do whatever your boss tells you to do.

But sometimes, as you look at the scale of the task that’s being asked of you, you see that:

  1. You cannot do it – you don’t have the necessary skills or expertise to do it.
  2. You shouldn’t do it – based on the current priorities in your work, having this task is not ideal.
  3. You can do it, but not at this time – you’re committed on too many fronts, and you simply don’t have enough time to reliably deliver on this task.

Clarify and reset expectations.

Know what the expectations are of you, implicit or explicit.

Know what you’re supposed to deliver, in what form, by when.

Understand the implicit expectations of you. Many times, bosses might not be clear on their unspoken assumptions of you.

One simple way is to ask.

What do you expect me to deliver, and by when?

What do you expect of me?

When you hear the expectations of you, discuss it.

Be honest if you can’t deliver on those expectations.

Reshape those expectations.

Have a reliability scorecard.

Rate yourself.

Elena and Powell introduced a scorecard (adapted below) which you can use to regularly reflect on your progress.

how to become a CEO


Maybe reliability doesn’t sound so fancy after all.

But when you look at the evidence, it is the most reliable, dependable and trustworthy people that become the most effective people.

It’s about being relentless at executing.


What are you doing in your own life to be more reliable?

Do you think there are other more important qualities?

Share them in the comments below?


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