“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”
What does it really take to rise to the top of an organization? For CAs, it’s only natural to wonder what it might take to become a CEO. But there’s no map for getting to the top. Chief executives rise through organizations in many roles and with a multitude of backgrounds.
Kumar Mangalam Birla started off at Hindalco with a degree in Chartered Accountancy. HDFC’s Keki Mistry who is the CEO’s designate also started his career as a Chartered Accountant. Mr. Aditya Puri has been the Managing Director of HDFC Bank since September 1994. The owners of Emami group worked as Chartered Accountants in a Birla firm before starting off with their own company
A CA designation can definitely advance your prospects when the opportunity arises. A survey of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India says that companies with a CA at the helm also performed better on several key financial measures, including return on equity and return on capital.
Naturally, financial expertise, professional conduct and the ability to work with the board of directors can be trump cards if you are looking to the top spot. Beyond financial savvy, what does it take to make the leap to the executive suite?
a. First and foremost, it requires an understanding of what the position involves. Here are the two key elements of the president/CEO’s role.
Create and deliver winning strategies: Constantly adjusting for the current and future environments. Leaders need to be optimists. Their vision is beyond the present.” They need to evaluate macro and micro information, contemplate the organization’s opportunities and overcome barriers to growth and performance.
Lead by word and example: Great leaders foster honest two-way communication throughout the organization and offer simple, inspiring messages on a regular basis.
Apple guru and co-founder Steve Jobs has also contributed his share of memorable Zen-like phrases to the business world. One of his notable comments is almost a mission statement for the company: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Anita Roddick of The Body Shop cared deeply about her products and environmental ethics. Her comments were full of moral and ethical content: “Consumers have not been told effectively enough that they have huge power and that purchasing and shopping involve a moral choice.”
b. As CAs consider how to distinguish themselves in the corporate hierarchy, they should observe their corporate culture closely, understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Keep these principles in mind:
Ensure the organization’s values and guiding principles are well understood and reinforced with your actions. Kumar Mangalam Birla set the standard for Hindalco values and principles, saving the company’s reputation and leading it to become one of the world’s most profitable enterprises.
Create a culture in which the organization will succeed: There is a direct relationship between creating a winning culture and fostering great performance.
Grow future leaders: Set clear performance goalposts, requiring the stretching of minds and abilities.
Celebrate success by spotlighting achievers: Providing future leaders with special rewards and highlighting their success to others.
Communication Skills: In leveraging your CA expertise as you prepare for the CEO/president’s role, understand that communication is one of the key ingredients to your success. Start by becoming a great listener within your organization. Take the test – can you sit and listen to a colleague for more than 30 seconds before speaking? Listening to your employees is essential. Unless you get very good at working with people and managing people, you would have very limited success.
Step outside finance: To really ramp up on your upward trajectory, step outside the financial arena and engage in conversations, information gathering and analysis in other strategic business areas. You need not be the lead driver – but you must display a willingness to learn and broaden your skill set.
As one CA put it, “Continue to develop financial acumen but never allow it to block your ability to think outside of the box strategically.” Says another CA: “I went from having a quarterly view of life to a more strategic long-term outlook.”
Just as you should widen your scope within the organization, you should step outside it. Attend trade shows and conferences, join associations and chambers of commerce, talk to colleagues. Join peer groups.
Most leaders underestimate the amount of time required to learn and develop skills. British entrepreneur Richard “Virgin” Branson thinks of himself as a lifelong learner: “I see life almost like one long university education that I never had – every day I’m learning something new.I always set a career goal to continuously push the envelope," he says. “I like being a little uncomfortable because it forces you to think and it forces you to re-evaluate everything you do. When you get comfortable, you can get lazy, both intellectually and creatively.”
If you have that desire to become a CEO or president, you may want to take the first step in committing the time and energy to broaden your leadership capabilities. Not everyone is cut out for the role; in fact, discovering it’s not for you could be the ultimate blessing. But if you are a CA who knows deep down that you have the people skills and the motivation, nothing can stop you. Your path to the top is one of the clearest there is – and I hope after reading this, you can see it more clearly ahead of you