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Stewart Slipher

Before I Was CEO – A Weikel Leadership Series Presentation

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

As Wisconsin MBA students, we get the opportunity to interact with many executives from around the corporate world. In these interactions, we often attempt to understand the mindset and actions these executives took on their path to success. In a new perspective on the matter, Peter Vanham from the World Economic Forum visited the Wisconsin School of Business to address a question that has at one point crossed every MBA student’s mind: “How do I become a CEO?”

His remarks revealed observations from his book, Before I Was CEO, which showcased CEOs from around the world as they progressed to the top of their industries. However, some observations were both surprising and thought-provoking from our perspective as business students. Though grit and hard work naturally helps, Vanham highlighted that many of the world’s CEOs didn’t plan to be in that position and instead spent their whole careers chasing their short-term passions. Vanham also drew upon the worldwide travel experiences of many CEOs and proposed that many became successful by going far beyond their comfort zones of home and experiencing the world to gain broader life perspective. Even more surprising was his discovery of the role of failure and serendipity in a CEO’s career.

Though we as humans are naturally inclined to be risk-averse and fear failure, Vanham noted that today’s CEOs take failure head-on, learn from it quickly, and take advantage of many opportunities in the moment. In doing so, they overcome great adversity in pursuit of passion rather than a pre-determined path. Most importantly, Vanham noted that the key to a CEO’s success will always be family and the stability, support, and life purpose they provide at home. Though some family sacrifice is necessary, strong communication and bedrock values can propel those seeking a higher position forward with the help of those around them.

Vanham’s remarks were highly engaging and relevant in a time where MBA students are stepping back into the changing corporate world. Though it is difficult to know what to expect, Vanham’s Weikel discussion promoted a mindset of “living for the present” amongst current CEOs that we all can benefit from. Clearly, we must seize the near-term opportunities, prioritize family and friends, and recover quickly from inevitable failures that all businesspeople face. With Vanham’s framing of careers that have spanned 30+ years, we as upcoming business leaders at the Wisconsin School of Business can find career and life satisfaction that will carry us beyond our education.