How do you get to be a CEO? Recent research from the search firm Spencer Stuart identified the four most common “last-mile” experiences of first-time CEOs in S&P 500 companies: COO, divisional CEO, CFO, and “leapfrog” leaders promoted from lower in the organizations. 

Perhaps not so surprising, the path to CEO is littered with “C”s. 

The data gets more interesting, however, when you look at performance. Those unexpected “leapfrog” leaders, who enter the job from outside the C-Suite, were the most likely to outperform their peers. 

Different routes, different challenges on the path to CEO

The research also digs into the challenges that leaders from each of these “last-mile” pathways faced. 

COOs often faced the challenges of extending their followership across the organization, leading with vision, and expanding their strategic voice. Divisional CEOs, on the other hand, struggled with a different set of opportunities, namely building enterprise leadership, leading from both the front and the back, and encouraging open dialog. Anyone who knows the stereotypes of the CFO might guess that they’d struggle with balancing the rational with the emotional, but they also faced challenges in gaining operating experience and commercial exposure, and building talent. 

“Leapfrog” CEOs may ultimately achieve more success, but their path to CEO was still littered with obstacles. For those coming outside of the C-Suite, it was most important to hone their stakeholder management skills, build a network and supporter base, and scale up to manage complexity. 

Paving your own road to Chief Executive

Of course, each new CEO is unique. But these patterns can help you identify where you should focus your professional development. As the authors put it, “What distinguished aspiring CEOs who beat the odds was their self-awareness and devotion to unlocking their full potential — not just to become CEO but also to thrive once in the position.”

A robust leadership development program accelerates a new CEO’s successful integration. At Gail Golden Consulting, we have helped companies identify which future CEO is most likely to succeed, and we have coached numerous first-time CEOs as they led their companies to new levels of performance. If you’re facing a transition, contact me at

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