Some managers, not all, aspire to eventually join the ranks of the CEO. The problem is that most don’t know what they have to do to get there, so I called upon the expert. Debra Benton is the number one female CEO coach in the world and she’s worked with all the top companies, ranging from American Express to McDonald’s. Her latest book is called The CEO Difference, and her other books include The Virtual Executive and Executive Charisma. In this brief interview, Benton talks about what it takes to be a successful CEO, the mistakes leaders make when trying to reach the top post, what to do if the CEO won’t step down and more.

Dan Schawbel: What does it take to be a successful CEO in today’s corporate world?

Debra Benton: You can come from any walk of life. You can be tall, short, attractive, not so attractive, smart, or not so smart. You do not have to be a graduate from a top B-school. You do not need to have a “CEO” gene in your DNA.

It’s easier than you think to be a stellar leader. Whether you are trapped in a male or a female body, you can be a leader in any organization – and not just a typical chief but a terrific one. It’s going to happen to someone; it might as well be you.

Unwavering desire, unshakable focus, and consistent effort are what it takes. Believe me, it isn’t nearly as hard as being an NFL quarterback, professional pitcher, or Olympic medal winner.

The basics:

  • Have a good track record – be really good in at least one big area that is important to your company
  • Be widely trusted – without this everything else is for naught
  • Listen more than you talk – ask lots of questions to learn what’s needed at the top
  • Accept the need to stand out and be visible – which happens when you do things that people say can’t be done
  • Have fire in your belly – gut it out; try hard then try harder and then even harder, again

Schawbel: What mistakes do leaders typically make when they are looking to advance to executive levels at their company?

Benton: The number one mistake is not developing people below you to take your job.

You cannot move up and along unless you move others up and along too. Prepare people not just to do your job but to be a leader in general. If you don’t have 2-3 successors, you’re not doing your job.

To prepare people:

  • set a good example
  • constantly communicate
  • dress, walk, and talk like a leader
  • have a list of requirements for the job and make sure people meet them
  • encourage people to see themselves in the job; to strive for it

Schawbel: What do you do if you want to be at the top of a company but no one is leaving that post anytime soon? Do you jump to another company?

Benton: Reality is if you work in a company with a freshly minted 36-year-old CEO you will have to wait a long time before he retires. But, s/he is likely looking for the next opportunity too so the job may open sooner than you think.

Either way, prepare as if the potential is there. Prepare for moving up in your own organization but to be attractive to others organizations as well. People are evaluating you all the time. Every move is observed. Fewer actions go unnoticed than you’d like to believe.

Prepare by doing the basics listed above but also try to think and act like a CEO now, regardless of your current title. Take on the role of leadership before you have the top level job and responsibility. Don’t wait until that time because that will be too late.

To think and act like a good CEO work to positively influence others: You have to cause people to follow you even though they don’t have to.

Being the smartest, fastest, and best in your specialty does not make you a leader any more than being in front of a parade does. People choose who they will follow. The ones they pick treat them with respect, which translates into when something happens, their first thought isn’t, “How will this affect me?” but “How will this affect my people?”

Do a stellar job where you are so you become indispensable. Tell your boss and bosses boss your goals and ambitions. Ask for their help in making it happen in this company or someplace else. (They might try harder if they fear losing you.)

Always look at the reality of the situation you are in and if after all your effort you are not rewarded with advancement take your talents elsewhere.

Never leave without doing all the above and learning everything you can where you are. When you cannot possibly grow more, that’s the time to look elsewhere.

One CEO gave me this advice, “The first law: Understand the rules, but play your own game. The second law: Understand the rules, but play your own game. The third law: Understand the rules, but play your own game.”

Schawbel: What does a CEO do everyday that the people that report to them don’t?

Benton: A CEO is the only generalist in the organization; everyone else is a specialist.

That means s/he takes on the concerns of all disciplines. Makes things better across the board, not just in one specialty. Creates a consistent high-performance/high-integrity culture and carries that across a wide and diverse audience.

A generalist has skills of influencing, problem solving, decision-making, delegating, and dealing with office politics and business bullies.

But again, this isn’t that difficult. You just have to be the one who really wants to do it. As one CEO told me about getting the top job, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I volunteered anyway….I’m as surprised as everyone else that I got the job.”