Lessons From the Top, Part 1

“The buck stops here!” –Harry S. Truman, former haberdasher

Everyone wants to be the boss. What does it take to make it to the top?

No one is born to leadership, not even the son of a President. It can be difficult to predict which skills and experiences will prove most valuable in times of crisis; the confrontational and defiant manner that proved a liability in peacetime can become an asset in times of struggle.

Ultimately, there are many answers to the question of business leadership. We have to find the ones that work for our particular situation. We can all draw inspiration from the experiences of others. I spoke with 10 Silicon Valley CEOs to learn more about their individual stories. This column shares seven bits of first-person wisdom on making your way to the top.

7. Recognize that fate plays a major role in shaping your career.

“I don’t know that I’ve made a lot of choices. I was a national honors society student, and if you had a job you could get out of school five weeks early. So I looked for a job. I didn’t have a car, so the only company in town I could work for was Compugraphic. I ended up as a typing clerk in the international marketing department. The world of business just opened my eyes, and I decided to stay a year. Then another year. Then I decided to take classes at night, just to stay in practice. What if the only company in town had been Acme Plastics?” –Jean Kovacs, president and CEO of Comergent (and Harvard Business School graduate)

Many people (myself included, before I began my research) believe CEOs have been following a conscious plan. I found that CEOs I talked to were exceptionally open to opportunity. A number pursued several careers, such as Ken Wilcox, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank, who was a professor of German Studies at Indiana University and the University of North Carolina before joining the business world. There is no magic pathway to success. You should stay alert to the possibilities of serendipity.

6. Stay flexible in your specific plans and aspirations, but figure out what you want to do.

“I don’t have any particular vision as to what the next thing is. Life is one day at a time. Something happens every single day to change my perspective on what I should do next. When I came out of business school, I wanted to have a plan for what I would be doing in five years… now I want to work in the right environment where I can lead people and work on a product or service that helps people.” –Andy Chan, president and CEO of eProNet

Sometimes the difference between Heaven and Hell is the company you keep. Seeking out environments and daily processes you enjoy is more important than staying faithful to a rigid concept of your career. Many CEOs I spoke with had made lateral moves in their careers — anathema in conventional career planning but critical to finding an environment in which you can flourish.

5. Want to succeed? Be prepared for hard work.

“Recently, people got a sense there [is] a manifest destiny, ‘I’m going to be rich and young.’ That’s not the way it works. There are many years of hard work, with many setbacks. Don’t over-plan your career. Be open to the opportunities. Life’s too short. You’ve got to live life. If you’re smart and you work hard, it’ll work out.” –Rich Redelfs, President and CEO of Atheros Communications

There will always be setbacks along the way. In 1990, Ken Wilcox was at Bank of New England when it announced a billion-dollar loss. Disaster or opportunity? The crisis allowed Wilcox to cut a deal to set up Silicon Valley Bank’s Boston office. “The most successful people are those that can take what appears to be an obstacle and turn it into a springboard for something better,” he says.

4. Venture capital isn’t everything.

“Venture capitalists could never have funded the great American companies. There was no formula for them. There was no Henry Ford before Henry Ford. The bulk of the VC sector seems to follow the innovative VCs [who] actually blazed new territory. There’s no better example than the craziness of what they invested in during 1999 and 2000.” –Bill Lang, president and cofounder of Sharinga Networks

This is not to say if a venture capitalist offers you $10 million, you should refuse. Simply recognize that the imprimatur of venture capital doesn’t guarantee success any more than a lack thereof prevents it.

3. Choose your industry wisely.

“If you’re not in the right industry, no matter how good your work is you’ll have difficulty finding a way to make money. The industry you choose is more powerful than you. Find a company with quality people in an industry where there is a lot of change, hence, opportunity.” –Andy Chan

For better or worse, your choice of industry shapes your career. Most CEOs I spoke with built their domain expertise and network in a particular industry, which helped pave the way for taking a position of leadership. Work in an industry you enjoy. If you want to build software, don’t go into healthcare. If chip design is your goal, don’t wander into advertising.

2. Have a reason beyond ambition for being CEO.

“One of the most important reasons I became CEO is I have a platform, a reason to lead the organization beyond simply wanting to be CEO. As I look around me and plan for choosing my successor, I see a lot of people who want to be CEO, but only a few who have any idea why they want the job.” –Ken Wilcox, president and CEO, Silicon Valley Bank

1. Don’t become CEO before you’re ready.

“Don’t become a CEO before you’re ready. It’s the shittiest job in the world. Building a successful company means making solid decisions every single day — and enjoying it. It takes five to seven years. If you don’t enjoy it, five to seven years is a lifetime. Be patient. It’s a long life.” –Anonymous

Although everyone wants to be CEO, few who haven’t occupied the hot seat truly appreciate its challenges. A CEO sets the direction for the company. Without a guiding star beyond ambition, the CEO’s career and business may both run aground.

Next, I’ll discuss what to do once you become CEO and what it takes to stay on top.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.