Where were the CEOs before they were CEOs? 5 paths to the top

Knowing the positions CEOs held before attaining the top title may offer insight on their performance and help aspiring CEOs chart their course to the top. Research from leadership consultancy Spencer Stuart, published in December, sheds light on paths to the CEO suite.

Spencer Stuart analyzed over 1,300 CEO transitions, collected the advice given to more than 100 senior executives eyeing the top position and interviewed successful CEOs. 

  1. Over the last 20 years, 85 percent of new S&P 500 CEOs have ascended from four positions: COO, CFO, divisional CEO and leapfrog leaders from below the second layer of management.
  2. In the early 2000s, 76 percent of new CEOs were former COOs. That percentage declined to 38 percent in 2020.
  3. Thirty-six percent of new CEOs were former divisional CEOs in 2020.
  4. CFOs are the third most common stepping stone to CEO, with 9 percent of newly appointed CEOs in 2020 being former CFOs.
  5. Among the four most common final steppingstone positions before making CEO, leapfrog leaders were more likely to outperform the others, and CFOs generally performed the worst. The divisional CEO was the safest bet against underperformance.

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