Catching up on Algebra: How Young CEOs Accelerate Their Learning

“I just feel like I have missed a bunch of stuff. It is as if I am coming to the end of high school, but have missed 8th and 9th grade pre-algebra. I am supposed to know what algebra is, but there are holes in my understanding. I am CEO, but there is so much I don’t know about being the CEO.”

So we were told by a 33-year-old CEO of a DC-based nonprofit. From just three people at the start some years ago, to nearly 100 staff now, surely he was doing something right? Yet, he felt ill prepared. He just didn’t know what he didn’t know about how to be a CEO.

Another 30-something CEO who built a social enterprise company was told by his Board that, as founder and main ideas guy, he was highly valued, but he was no longer the right guy to be the CEO. His zeal about the technology, and his energy and entrepreneurial mindset was unsuitable for the current state, they said. They determined that the role had outgrown his leadership skills.

A final example; the 34 year old CEO of a start-up multi-billion dollar energy project told us he was a successful project engineer. He knew how to configure and manage a huge construction project. But, he had no experience in building a business. So, as the company hired hundreds of employees, he had little experience to draw on in forming a leadership team, creating the right culture, and identifying leadership talent.

Are CEOs getting younger?

Certainly in two sectors they are. In both tech and social enterprise there are many 30-something CEOs.

In these two sectors in particular, but others too, we often find one common theme; the 30-something CEOs are often the subject-matter experts; perhaps a former software engineer in a tech firm, or a social entrepreneur starting a nonprofit. They are CEO because it is their business; they started it. They know the technology, the product, better than anyone. What’s more, they have the respect of colleagues because they are the expert.

Young “founder CEOs” like those highlighted here are founders because of their creative vision. They are CEOs because they created a space where one did not exist. They are the CEO because of their vision, not their experience. It does not take them long, however, to realize what our research has shown regarding first time CEOs. Even the most seasoned executives and leaders are less prepared to step into the CEO role than they realized until they were in the seat.

Regardless of the path to CEO, we’ve found that to be a great CEO, experience and experiences, matter. Not just business experience. Life experiences matter. According to Forbes, the median age of an S&P 500 CEO is 55. That means they have about twenty years more work experience and multiples more life experiences than a 30-something CEO.

One successful CEO we recently interviewed is now CEO for the third time. The first time, he was 29 years old. He was put in charge of a subsidiary business of about 150 people. His only personal experience of what it was like to be a CEO was his predecessor. So, he copied his predecessor’s style and approach. It didn’t work. He stumbled badly, realizing that he knew nothing about the role itself or how to handle it.

How should they learn to lead?

When it comes to self development, one thing we often notice is that many 30-something CEOs prioritize what they know: if they are in software, they remain current, they go to tech conferences. If they are in energy, they listen to all the trends in oil extraction or green energy. They tend to focus their learning on the product or technology.

So, what can 30-something CEOs do to accelerate their understanding of leading and leadership? How can she or he “catch up on algebra”? The first question perhaps is, “Do I really know what this role of CEO is all about?” Because, self-evidently, it is a unique role. In fact, our CEO study, Exchanges 16, explores the experience of becoming CEO for the first time. And it showcases how surprised most CEOs are once they are in the seat—by others’ expectations of them and what others project onto them.

Knowing what the role itself is all about perhaps prompts a second question; “Do I want to be the CEO?” Although that may seem like a rhetorical question it is actually a very valuable one to ask—even if the only outcome is to have a greater awareness of the leap about to be made.

Moving from being the expert to being the CEO requires a self-conscious effort to unlearn some things and learn a great many new things. As one CEO we know said “What got me here, won’t keep me here.”

3 actions to catch up on algebra

Assuming the answer to the second question is yes, what practical things can be done? The 75 CEOs that we interviewed for Exchanges 16 recommend three things that are of particular value for 30-something CEOs.

First, find a mentor. Someone who has been CEO before and who knows what is around the corner.

Second, work with an advisor/coach. It is a sign of strength to do so. A sign of self-confidence. A sign to others in the organization that you are investing in yourself.

Third, make sure you get lots of unvarnished feedback—about yourself, and about the organization. It’s the fastest way to learn.

There is a paradox at the heart of many organizations with a 30-something CEO who is a subject-matter expert. He or she is often driven by a passion for the idea; the technology or the product. And, that product or technology might be a world-beater. Yet, that passion and expertise is insufficient for growth; for scale. It won’t enable the organization to achieve its goal or mission. What will is leadership that builds an organization full of inspired and motivated people. Knowing that is the first step to becoming a great CEO.


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