Guest Post: How do you get to be a CEO?

January 29, 2009, 12:07 AM UTC
Fortune

By Greg Spierkel, CEO of Ingram Micro . Based in Santa Ana, California, Ingram Micro is No. 69 on the Fortune 500, with $35 billion in 2007 revenues and 15,000 employees in 34 countries. Spierkel, who stepped up to the CEO position in 2005, is also on the PACCAR board.

I’m frequently asked by students and new associates, “How do you get to be a CEO?” I smile, knowing that there’s no simple answer.

But I’ve learned from some early personal experiences.

Even Rock Stars Do Their Homework. In 1979, when I was 22, some friends and I were traveling through France and decided to hit Cannes during the famous film festival. We were watching the paparazzi take pictures of all the stars when we noticed one guy who didn’t look like all the rest. What stood out wasn’t so much his long dreadlocks. It was his purple spandex jumpsuit. And even though he was holding a video camera up to his face, we could tell it was none other than Bob Marley.

We decided to walk up to him. And we were glad we did because this turned out to be of the most interesting moments of my life.

Marley hadn’t achieved worldwide fame yet and couldn’t believe someone actually knew who he was. In fact, he was so excited that he asked us to join him for coffee. We ran across the street to a beachside café and sat down for about 15 minutes. While you might imagine that we talked about music, we actually talked about what makes someone a star – what makes someone stand out. Bob Marley told us that he was there to film celebrities so he could study the footage and try to unlock the mystery of star power.

Now we all know that he solved that mystery. I learned from Bob Marley and others that raw talent and the right connections will get you only so far. Real success requires homework, ingenuity and learning from the best.

Embrace boring assignments. A few months after traveling around Europe, I started my first job out of university at Bell Canada, Canada’s largest communications company. I was hired to develop a national e-mail service. This was back in 1979, the early days of desktop PCs. After three years of struggling to market the product, I volunteered to lead the sales effort. It was a job that no one wanted.

But I wanted the job because I had been a product developer, and I knew that my intimate knowledge would help me sell the product. Within a year, sales took off. After that, I was assigned to a number of low-profile projects that most people would have said no to. But I learned that doing a great job, particularly on a menial or unwanted assignment, was the way to stand out. Most people want to be put only on winning teams. I say look at all opportunities. Excel where people least expect you to.

Opportunities ignore personal lives. At 29, I was living in Ottawa enjoying a nice career working for Mitel, a multinational manufacturer of PBX, software and semiconductor products. I was asked to lead a small acquisition in Hong Kong. I was single with no kids but still had my share of fears. I didn’t know the language and didn’t have the deep experience I thought I needed. But within three weeks of getting the offer, I packed my bags and moved to Hong Kong.

This job led to a string of bigger assignments over the next 20 years, taking me through six countries. Along the way, I met my wife, Rhiannon. And although the discussions definitely got more difficult after we had kids, we moved with my various promotions – to Singapore, Belgium and the U.S. My two boys, 15 and 12, have seen more of the world than most kids. They also have a keen appreciation for other cultures. These guys are true global citizens.