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Korn Ferry CEO: What it takes to land a job like mine


With Twitter Inc.’s CEO Dick Costolo having recently stepped down, all eyes are on who will be the social media company’s next leader. Among the names that have emerged as a potential replacement is Twitter CFO Anthony Noto, who has a greatly expanded role at the social media company, including overseeing marketing and shaping content strategy.

While it seems recruiters often look to CFOs like Noto to fill CEO jobs, that’s not always what happens. Just because a candidate manages the financials of a company doesn’t mean he or she has what it takes to land a CEO job; the best CEOs have a knack for influencing others; engaging and inspiring people; building relationships.

Among the CEOs of the 2,000 largest global companies in 2015, only 13% moved into that position from the CFO spot, according to a Korn Kerry study. If we included other senior-level financial positions, such as controller, treasurer, chief accounting officer, investor relations, the percentage rise only to 18%

As someone who has made this leap from CFO to CEO, I can attest that there is a huge difference between being in a No. 2 spot and occupying the No. 1 position. Earlier in my career at Korn Ferry (KFY), when I was an operating officer and a CFO, I could still be “one of the guys.” People viewed me as a person, not as a function. I was even allowed to have a “bad day” once in a while without worrying about whether my personal mood affected the company. Then I became the CEO. Suddenly, people were reading my mood like tea leaves. I wasn’t just speaking for myself anymore. I represented a position and an institution.

This realization prompted me to change my communication style, shifting away from the PowerPoints I relied on as a CFO (a pie chart never inspired anyone) to focus as much on my tone, attitude, and the energy with which I spoke and interacted with others, as I did on what I had to tell them.

With their exponentially more responsibilities, CEOs must possess optimism and courage. These two traits help them face challenges and uncertainty with confidence, while also acting as a steadying force for others. Helping others believe they can overcome challenges is another aspect of “social leadership” to inspire and motivate others.

In addition, CEOs tend to have a very strong customer focus—a commercial temperament about the marketplace and an almost intuitive sense of what new or improved products and services customers will want. They can gauge a plethora of external forces including mega trends, competitors, product innovation, and new markets from customers’ perspectives.

While it’s not clear who will ultimately assume the top spot at Twitter (TWTR), one thing is clear: those who aspire to become CEO of any large company must possess the key leadership trait of learning agility. Depending too much on what worked in the past may not lead to future success.

By tapping their learning agility and developing their curiosity to become lifelong learners, CFOs and other executives can move beyond their technical skills such as financial acumen and develop the kind of social leadership skills that will differentiate them—and possibility open the door to the CEO office.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry, a Los Angeles, CA-based executive search firm.