What It Takes to Become the CEO

CEO Board Room

I hate to tell you this, but being a successful fundraiser is not a stroll in the park. Anyone who tells you it is either knows a lot more than I do or is a little out of integrity.

If you have plans of one day occupying that CEO seat (and it’s okay if you don’t!), it’s even tougher. It’s like starting your own business (as I have been fortunate enough to), where every morning you wake up and determine: “What are the plans for ‘My Name, Inc.’, today?”

In my experience: in order to truly succeed, you have to think of yourself as an entity, a business, and make specific plans to succeed. To grow, to learn, and to expand. Every detail here – physical, emotional, psychological, practical, or impractical – matters.

You may be thinking “But I know Mr. James Doe who easily got that job …”. Stop right there. Mr. James Doe may be the exception, or, you just may not know all of the details of Mr. James’ journey to the top. Many leaders hide the details of their paths and instead, publicly announce “Well, I was lucky I guess.” There’s no such thing.

I am fortunate to have become the CEO of an organization. And, in my experience, it took a whole lot of focus, courage, knowledge, expertise, effort, a never-give-up attitude, and a rich mindset to do so. Perhaps even more importantly than these, you must believe, 100% in your heart, that you deserve what you’re reaching for. Coupling this emotion with logic, you’ll have the perfect ingredients to get where you want to be. Emotion absent of logic will paralyze you with pitying “that was not fair that she got the job over me” kinds of attitudes.  In fact, there’s no such thing as fair in this world, but that’s another story altogether.

What Does This All Mean?

Although this post is a 100-mile-high view, its message is straightforward and simple. If you are not emotionally, logically, and comprehensively committed to becoming a CEO, chances are you won’t.

Granted, beyond focus, a lot of networking, sometimes luck, and a few great degrees won’t hurt your chances. That said, not having these cannot be excuses, and beginning with our job board is a good start to see advancement opportunities. The next step would be to contact executive search firms listed on this website. What’s more valuable than what’s on paper is an ability to maneuver and persevere – and that comes from within. I know several MBAs (one from Harvard, by the way), who are flat broke right now.

Did I mention perseverance? As an aside, Mohammed Ali was once asked, “How many sit-ups do you do a day?” He answered that he doesn’t start counting until it begins to hurt. Top professional musicians practice 10 hours a day. Star players on the USA women’s soccer team have been known to practice 30 hours a week in training, and another 20 hours a week at the gym. And, this doesn’t even take into account actually studying the sport and reading what other successful players do. So you see? This kind of comprehensive effort is the kind of perseverance that wins Olympic medals.


Are you willing to give up weekends? Aspiring CEO’s are. Are you willing to work 7 days a week and often give up family life? Aspiring CEO’s are. Are you willing to work 16 hours a day and say no to happy hours? Aspiring CEO’s are. Are you willing to sacrifice family, friends, hobbies, and recreations? Aspiring CEO’s are. Are you willing to risk time, energy and your money to succeed? Aspiring CEO’s are. This was the life of many of my peers who are now in leadership positions in nonprofit foundations and businesses. I’ve existed in this way, myself.

For a short time, and hopefully not a very long time, aspiring CEO who want to be at the top are willing to do all of this. I am not talking about a lifelong sacrificial existence, but there needs to be a period of sacrifice. When I began my business, I lived on nothing for 3 years while my wife supported me with a minimal income. In a way, I miss those long days and endless nights – grinding at the local Denny’s with a pot of coffee until 3:45 AM.

If you have goals and are not taking these steps, then your goals are simply just, well, wishes.

Maybe you’ll be lucky, but I wouldn’t count on that. There’s a sign in my gym that reads, “There’s no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” The good news is that once your peers, friends and family see that you’ve made this level of a commitment, they’ll likely be behind you and support you. And then, the universe will pave the way for the rest of the little miracles you need to make your big dreams happen.

Never give up. You’re worth it. If you stick to this game plan it is not out of your reach.

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