A CEO whom we’ll call Melissa was exasperated. Having delivered seven years of breakthrough performance and nearing retirement, she was eager to select and prepare her successor. Members of her executive team were strong in their current roles but none was quite right for the top job.
As we considered a broader group of potential candidates, the CHRO chimed in with an idea: “What about Tom? He is very strategic and his teams would take the hill for him. He might be worth looking at as an option.” Then the CHRO paused for a moment and added, “Of course there is this issue of his executive presence. Tom often hogs the spotlight in meetings unaware of how that alienates his peers. And…well…I don’t know how to put this, but he has noticeable body odor that’s a real turnoff.” Melissa agreed: “Tom is a brilliant business
Most leaders are, deep down, afraid of failure. But our 10-year CEO Genome study of over 2,600 leaders showed almost half (45%) suffered at least one major career blow-up — like getting fired, messing up a major deal, or blowing an acquisition. Despite that, 78% of these executives eventually made it to the CEO role.
We conducted additional research on 360 executives, analyzing their careers in depth. While all of them experienced a variety of setbacks, 18% of executives in this dataset faced what many view as the very worst-case scenario: getting fired or laid off. Most of them lost their job at a relatively senior point in their career (only 17% were in their first decade in the workforce at the time they were let go).
What we found is that being fired or laid off doesn’t necessarily have catastrophic effects on leaders’ prospects. We also found
Some people’s careers take off, while others’ take longer — or even stall out.
Common wisdom says that the former attend elite MBA programs, land high-powered jobs right out of school at prestigious firms, and climb the ladder straight to the top, carefully avoiding risky moves. But our data shows a completely different picture.
We conducted a 10-year study, which we call the CEO Genome Project, in which we assembled a data set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 in-depth to analyze who gets to the top and how. We then took a closer look at “CEO sprinters” — those who reached the CEO role faster than the average of 24 years from their first job.
We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their