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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Building Your CEO Career The Hard Way: And Why You Should Want To

Special Reports

Building Your CEO Career The Hard Way: And Why You Should Want To

Steven L. Blue

I am often asked how I got to be a CEO. It seems like a simple question. And in a sense, it is. Most people who ask are looking for a simple answer. Most people who ask are hoping for a few things that I did, so that they can copy and become a CEO. While the question is indeed simple, the answer is complicated.

Most people don’t want to hear the truth of the matter. Becoming a CEO is a hard, arduous, and long journey. A journey that is fraught with difficulty, anguish, fear, and sacrifice. 

Case in point: Once when I was negotiating a high stakes deal with a union, someone threw bricks through my front window one night. My children were playing there, and my wife was sitting right next that window. 

I could have chosen the easy, safe way out and not pushed for the deal I was pushing for. I knew the stakes were high on both sides, which might push them into extreme action to get me to back off. But I didn’t back off, even after the bricks were thrown. What I did do was hire round-the-clock security for my family until the deal was done. Just one of the milestones on the road to becoming a CEO.

Securing that deal led the way to the next step in my career-a division vice president with P&L responsibility. Had I not, I never would have gotten that job.

That was just one step in building my career the hard way. So why should you want to build yours the hard way?

Because taking the easy way in a career will only get you easy jobs. Nobody ever got to be a CEO by taking the easy jobs.

So, if you want to build a career, take the hard jobs. In fact, look for, and ask for, the hard jobs. The jobs nobody wants to touch. The toxic jobs, the rotten assignments in out of the way Podunk nowhere places. 

I remember the first time I did that. The company had a plant in the middle of nowhere that needed a temporary plant manager while a permanent replacement was found. No one wanted the assignment. It required moving my family for an unknown period of time. It involved an out of the way, almost insignificant part of the company that was unlikely to shine on a career. I didn’t think it would either, but I saw it as a chance to broaden my career.

And what a hornets nest I walked into. Corporate didn’t know what a cesspool the plant was. The previous manager was concealing bad performance numbers. The ship was sinking and corporate didn’t know it-until I got there and revealed all the problems. All the other managers at the plant did everything they could to dissuade me. They were hoping I would turn tail and just go back to corporate. They threatened me. They told corporate all kinds of lies about me. 

But I prevailed and eventually became a hero for saving the plant. After that, most of the executives asked for me by name when they had a tough problem that needed solving. And problem solve I did. Over the next several years I got into all parts of the organization fixing problems. That taught me how everything worked, or didn’t work, in all parts of an organization. That is why I tell CEO’s they don’t have a problem I haven’t already seen. I also tell CEO’s the don’t have a problem I haven’t already solved. 

Shortly after that I went to work for a turnaround situation. If you are not familiar with turnarounds, they are usually companies in such deep trouble they are unlikely to succeed. High stakes indeed. Things were so bad we often had to choose between paying the utility bills or making payroll. Many nights I lay awake wondering how I could ever turn it around. But I did. And then my career really took off. 

But the tough times didn’t stop there. As I continued to climb corporate ladders, I faced more intense pressure and more intractable problems. In all that time, I never took “the easy way out.”

And you shouldn’t either. If you want to build your career, and indeed, if you want to be a CEO, buckle up, because it is going to be a rough ride. 

Expect tough times. Welcome tough times. The tough times will sharpen you for the next challenge. 

You see, no one wants a CEO that isn’t battle hardened. The way to become a CEO is to go into the battles that will harden you. 

Maybe you don’t want to be a CEO. That’s fine. But if you want to build a career of distinction and satisfaction, take the tough roads. Take the roads that test you. Take the roads that make you better. That is how to build a career.


Written by Steven L. Blue.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Building Your CEO Career The Hard Way: And Why You Should Want To
Steven L. Blue
Steven L. Blue is President & CEO of Miller Ingenuity, has published five books that teach senior leaders and CEOs how to increase profit, take market share, and destroy competition and serves as CEO-in-Residence at Winona State University.

His third book was co-authored by Jack Canfield and was an immediate best-seller. His most recent book, Metamorphosis: From Rust-Belt to High-Technology in a 21st Century World, details exactly how any low technology company can enter the world of high technology and high-profit products. He created and authored the League of Extraordinary CEO series, a monthly CEO advice column in the American City Business Journals.

He is a highly-acclaimed keynote speaker. He has addressed audiences at Harvard Business School, The United Nations, Carnegie Hall, The Safe America Foundation, Industry Week, The World Safe Summit, CEO Clubs International and Medtronic Corporation.


Steven L. Blue is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.