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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Keys to the Boardroom: The Accidental CEO

I once knew a young man (I’ll call him Steve) who was hired by Hewlett-Packard straight out of college and told everyone that he was going to be CEO of the company by the time he was forty.

A lot of people believed him. Steve was ambitious, personable, and hard-working, and gave every appearance of making good on his promise. He had graduated at the top of his class at Stanford, was the president of his fraternity, and had already applied for acceptance into Stanford’s MBA program. He performed spectacularly in his job. He stood out in meetings and always offered fresh insights and workable suggestions to any issue on the table. His assignments were always completed on-time and executed with exceptional quality and thoroughness.

Every week, Steve checked the personnel department for new job postings, and applied for any position that would advance him up the next rung of the ladder. Within eighteen months he left our division in Colorado and headed west to the corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, California, hoping that, by going directly to the managerial center of the company, he would find a more direct pathway to the top.

Seven months after arriving in the Bay Area, Steve applied for and was awarded his first management job. I remember getting a call from him shortly after his promotion. He was absolutely ecstatic and convinced more than ever that he was on his way to the boardroom. Those of us back in Colorado who knew him were happy for him, too. But because his new position was in a different division from mine, I lost track of him after that.

It was not until three years later I was in Palo Alto to serve on a corporate task force that I found out what happened to Steve. One of my colleagues on the task force was a marketing manager in Steve’s division, and I asked if she knew him. She told me she used to work for Steve, but that he had left the company about a year ago. I wasn’t surprised: the Bay area in the eighties was teeming with jobs and a lot of people were tempted to jump to competing companies in search of better opportunities. But Steve, she told me, did not leave to further his quest of rising to the top, but left to keep from being fired.

The group he had managed had mutinied; within a year, everyone who could find other jobs had left his group. Steve’s career then began a downward spiral-he was demoted several times, and finally put on probation for poor performance. In the end, he resigned just before being terminated for insubordination and non-ethical behavior.

He was bitter and defiant when he left, a shell of his former outgoing, enthusiastic self.

Contrast Steve’s story with the career aspirations of the following individuals who started with somewhat less lofty ambitions….

Out of high school, I went into the Marine Corp. When I came out of the Marine Corp after serving in Korea, I needed a job. My wife had two uncles. One was a milkman and the other was a worker with the electric company. And so I applied to both places. <The electric company> called me first, otherwise I’d be a milkman today.

Fortune 500 Electric Utilities Company CEO

When I joined <Company> I thought that if I could ever rise to head of marketing that would be a good accomplishment. I thought that would have been my natural inclination and the kind of thing that I would have been good at. I never started out thinking of being president of the company, but I was happy to have the job. I think opportunism had a lot to do with it. I just tried to do a good job every day.

Fortune 500 Computer and Instrument Company

Did I aspire to be CEO? No, no. I have been surprised by every job I’ve ever gotten and that’s no bull. I’ve just been very fortunate. When I was a young sales guy I went to general sales meetings and I would watch the vice president of marketing. He was a great charismatic guy-he was tall, good looking, looked like Cary Grant. He was a great speaker, very polished, a gentleman, a great salesperson, and I thought, man that guy has a lot of class. If I could ever be just like him and be a regional sales manager in Chicago that would be a big deal.

Fortune 500 Chemical Company CEO

My family came to the United States from Bulgaria and settled in Terre Haute, Indiana. And people ask me, why Terre Haute, Indiana? I tell them it was a hell of a lot better than . . . Bulgaria. I just wanted to have a good career with a good company and management was not something that I was focused on, although I must admit when I went to Cleveland, I thought, boy if I could have the job of the sales office manager, I could die a very happy camper. That seemed like a pretty good deal. But, no, I had no career-maybe I was naive and maybe in those distant days in the past, career planning was not as it is now, but I had no real career plan and path to management, no.

Fortune 500 Chemical Company CEO

These are not isolated cases. Many of the CEOs I interviewed believed they arrived in the top positions in their companies almost by accident. They are being humble, of course-each one of these men achieved incredible results throughout their careers that more than qualified them for the top job-but none set out, as Steve did, with the ambition of becoming CEO, or even of moving into management.

Career success, a CEO will tell you, must never be your goal. Career success is achieved only as the by-product of accomplishing other goals.

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Matthew Belge
Matthew Belge

Really wonderful insights, John. Follow your passion and the rest will follow.

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