Brandt On Leadership -- CEO Career Secrets

April 10, 2007
Big head? Vacant stare? Cheer up -- you may already be a major CEO!

If you're like most execs, you've thought to yourself at one time or another: "You know, I'm sure that I'd make a great CEO of a major corporation. Yet I don't know what I'd actually have to do to get such a job. Is there anyone who can help me?"

Fortunately for you, I've been studying CEOs of major corporations for some time now -- and I know the secrets of how to become one. See if you've got what it takes:

Appearance: This is going to sound strange, so I'll say it up front: It helps to have a really big head if you want to be a CEO (or a television anchor). No one knows why this is true -- Do other humans assume that a large head equates to a bigger brain? Are they subconsciously fearful that Mr. Huge Cranium will head-butt them into submission? -- but large heads are unusually prevalent among CEOs, even before the effects of ego inflation. This may seem unfair to pinheads who want to ascend the corporate ladder, but -- lucky for you -- modern science can now boost your hat size (and biceps) even after age 40 (just ask Barry Bonds). You can also increase the apparent size of your head by either shaving it clean or by having a perfectly coiffed, silver mane. Just make sure your PR staff encourages reporters to describe you as regal or leonine, instead of bald or scraggly.

The Look: Even more important than the size of your head is the expression in the middle of it. For CEOs, that expression is The Look -- a stern, unwavering gaze based on the CEO's Secret Survival Maxim: It's not important that you actually be smart (or brave, or wise, or generous, etc.), as long as you look smart (or brave, or wise, or generous, etc.). Here's how to work on your own look: Stare out a window and imagine that you are courageous, strong, determined and utterly unconcerned by any threats confronting the company. Remember, too, that this will be easier to do as a real CEO than it is now. Why? Because from the isolation of a customer-free boardroom, you won't have a clue if there are any threats in the first place. You'll sleep like a baby.

The Talk: No CEO worth his stock options spouts anything other than homespun clichs and vertiginously platitudinous corporate robo-speak (look that one up!). What you're aiming for is a verbal cocktail that mixes Alan Greenspan with a high school football coach. For example, while your auditor might think that you illegally pre-booked revenues, you would explain that "accounting mistakes were made by irrationally exuberant sales managers recording deals just a little short of the goal line, but sure as a fat sow rolls in mud, the game's not over yet and we'll get a chance to tie 'er up in the second half, Q3 currency externalities permitting." This kind of babble is especially useful in asking for an outrageous raise to your already obscene pay package, since you probably won't be able to keep a straight face anyway.

Humility: It's hard to overstress the importance of humility, even if you know in your heart that the whole place would go up in flames were you to leave. The best way to demonstrate your lack of pretension is to periodically make trips to your company's dingy facilities around the globe, meeting with the little people who actually build whatever it is your customers buy. You will inspect assembly lines you have no clue about, shake hands with people whose names will vanish the minute you turn away, and get your photo in the plant magazine and the local newspaper. Most important of all, you will make a speech in which you say that getting out and meeting employees is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of your job. This will be true, of course, because you got to fly there in a corporate jet, watched other people work like dogs all day long to make you money, and -- best of all -- you get to leave this hell-hole and go back to where the martinis are as chilled and smooth as your delivery.

Isn't that what you wanted to become a CEO for?

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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