Professionalizing the CEO Role

In the early 1870s, no one would know what you meant if you said, “I’m a psychologist.” Why not? The profession of psychologist hadn’t been professionalized. There wasn’t a body of knowledge about what psychologists do, and there was no way to study to become one.

Flash-forward to 1900 and it’s a very different story. People like Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Wundt have opened psychology clinics. The American Psychological Association exists. You can go get a doctorate in the field. Psychology is now a profession.

More recently, the major functional roles in business have gone through a similar process. “Marketer,” “accountant,” and “IT professional” are all now recognized professions. Each has a set of best practices and tools that the person entering the field can use—though not all functions have professionalized at the same rate.

As recently as twenty years ago, sales wasn’t a “profession” like accounting and marketing were. It wasn’t taught in schools, and most salespeople were lone wolves, relying on experience and independent study to get by. But then, in the mid-2000s, the professionalization of sales kicked into gear, driven largely by mass adoption of Salesforce.com and other CRMs. Thanks to these tools, standard processes and best practices began to develop. Much to the chagrin of some seasoned salespeople, these systems became vital going forward.

Despite the learning curve, the professionalization of sales was clearly a positive development. It maximized salespeople’s productivity and helped newcomers learn the profession quickly. Today, if a VP of sales told you they winged it without a CRM or sales process, you’d think they were crazy—or at the very least not a professional.

The Curious Case of the CEO

Over the past decade, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to CEOs about their jobs. When we start talking process, it becomes very clear that the CEO job is one of the last holdouts when it comes to professionalization. We CEOs, like pre-professionalization salespeople, still tend to be lone guns. We often feel isolated. There isn’t much standardization around our role. And with a few exceptions (Chief Executive being a notable one), we haven’t had many resources that address the skills, knowledge, and responsibilities of the CEO job. It’s no wonder that 68% of CEOs, looking back, say that they were unprepared for the job. In another study, 50% said the job was “not what I expected beforehand.”

Why has the CEO role resisted professionalization? If we consider the following, it makes sense:

People don’t do the job for very long. The average CEO tenure is short and shortening, currently standing at about five years. A marketer might spend four or five decades honing their professional skill, but the CEO has much less time to master the role. It doesn’t help that most CEOs earn the title late in their career, with retirement a common next step.

There are different definitions of “CEO.” Lots of entrepreneurs call themselves “CEOs” when they’re actually running their startup of five people—which is fine, but it’s not what I would call a true CEO job. Until you are responsible for managing across several full departments, the role is quite different. (For the record, my rule of thumb is that the CEO becomes a “real job” at about 20 employees.)

It’s hard to tell if you’re succeeding as a CEO. If you’re a salesperson, it’s pretty easy to know if you’re good at your job. You’re either pulling in sales or you’re not. That’s not true of the CEO. A CEO may be highly competent yet fail due to uncontrollable circumstances. He or she may also be incompetent and succeed due to favorable conditions. Without a direct feedback mechanism, it’s more difficult to pinpoint the core skills and abilities that underlie the CEO role.

There are simply fewer CEOs. Finally, with a smaller pool of people doing the job, the process of professionalization is naturally slower.

Does Professionalization Matter for the CEO?

Despite these realities, I’m a firm believer that the professionalization of the CEO role will—and should—continue. Does it really matter? Should we care?

I think it does, and I think we should. When CEOs take charge without dedicated resources or tools, they waste precious time and are forced to learn the job by trial and error. They have no easy way to study the role systematically. They are unable to stand on the shoulders of the thousands of CEOs who came before them, whose wisdom is scattered across doorstop memoirs and Harvard Business Review case studies.

CEOs also struggle because they lack their own version of Salesforce.com—a dedicated tool that helps them succeed in their role. Without such a tool, these leaders often feel unable to steer effectively. They find that they are often blind to developing issues in the organization until the very last minute.

Moving Forward: Scaling CEO Knowledge

Even though many CEOs are currently forced to take an impromptu approach to their job, it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, the CEO role has proven difficult to professionalize, but there are factors that encourage those of us working toward this goal.

For one, the CEO role has more in common across industries and organization types than is commonly recognized. That’s not necessarily true of other functional roles. If you’re in marketing, you need a deep understanding of the particular market you work in. Sales techniques change drastically across industries. HR, too, changes significantly depending on the employee base—union or non-union, salaried or hourly, remote or officed. The underlying responsibilities of the CEO role, on the other hand, apply whether you’re leading a midsize B2B SaaS company or a Fortune 500 consumer-goods company. Every CEO must know how to deliver on the key responsibilities I laid out in The CEO Tightrope, including owning the vision, building culture, and working across departments to deliver performance.

It’s also clear to me that many of today’s CEOs are hungry for a systematic approach to their job. More than a third of CEOs receive executive coaching, most at their own suggestion. CEO peer groups draw in thousands each year, and offer real benefits. As Chief Executive has shown, peer group attendees tend to head faster-growing and more profitable companies. Unfortunately, this type of CEO education doesn’t scale across the broader group of people in the profession—it happens in small groups or one-on-one, and the discussions are often highly confidential.

I am glad to see that in recent years more resources have sprung up that do speak to the particulars of the CEO role. That includes books like The CEO Next Door by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell and Jim Schleckser’s Great CEOs Are Lazy. Works like these push us toward a holistic, repeatable model of what makes for an effective CEO. I’m also encouraged by talking with attendees of my annual CEO course, readers of The CEO Tightrope, and users of Khorus, the platform I developed to help CEOs run their organizations. The most common feedback I get on all these projects is a gratefulness that we are moving toward real systems, resources, and education for CEOs.

Of course, professionalization won’t mean that all CEOs must follow the exact same rulebook. But as we consolidate CEO knowledge, create new CEO tools, and teach the underlying principles of the CEO role, we give modern chief executives—and the organizations they lead—a much greater chance of sustainable success.

Read more: Lead With Your Weaknesses…And Strengths