Manage Your Career for Skills You'll Need as CEO

Published on April 22, 2009

On the road to becoming a CEO, MBA students should develop leadership skills, become business “rainmakers,” and surround themselves with managers who are smarter and better skilled than they are, said Charles Sorrentino, ’78 (XP-40), president and CEO of Houston Wire & Cable Company.

“By being a rainmaker, I mean find new business, new revenue,” Sorrentino said during the Charles M. Harper Road to CEO Series at Harper Center on April 22. “I don’t mean through acquisitions, because acquisitions are great and work fine but you still have to build a business after you buy them. Play an organic role. Find ways of building the business. Don’t just come up with creative ideas; come up with the implementation also.”

The fireside discussion, co-sponsored by the student-led Corporate Management and Strategy Group, was moderated by James Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management.

MBAs can chart their paths in much the same ways as they select courses for their curriculum, said Steven Barnhart, AB ’84, MBA ’88, former president and CEO of Orbitz Worldwide Inc. “Understand which skills you’ll need as CEO, then find a set of roles in which you can learn them,” Barnhart said. “Depending on what kind of organization you want to run, you can actively manage your career to get those building blocks.”

Ninety percent of turnover occurs because a CEO does a bad job of interviewing candidates, Sorrentino said. To avoid those situations, Sorrentino looks for five core values or characteristics in potential employees, he said. Those include:

1. Integrity. “If you can’t trust people and you don’t believe in them, everything else is out the window,” Sorrentino said.

2. The ability to motivate others in a positive way. “Can they get employees excited, get them to come in on Saturdays or Sundays – whatever it takes?” he said.

3. Persuasive people skills. “You have to be very persuasive, no matter what kind of role you have,” Sorrentino said.

4. A strong bias for action. “The nice thing about mistakes is that you always find out what you should have done,” he said.

5. Tenacity. “You can change your mind, but you can’t give up for any reason,” Sorrentino said.

For Barnhart, the best unexpected part of becoming a CEO was his unanticipated success as the visible face of the organization, thanks to the right training and preparation, he said. “I now really enjoy going out and communicating the story of our company as CEO,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart’s newfound skill did not come naturally, but was something he had to be taught. “We hired an agency out of Washington DC and spent several sessions breaking down how to structure a conversation during an interview. A CEO needs to respond to every question, although you don’t have to answer it. You can deflect it and switch over.”

Barnhart and Sorrentino provided excellent advice for MBAs on how to shape their careers, said second-year student Smita Kini, former co-chair of the Corporate Management and Strategy Group. “These were things you don’t really think about while you’re in school because you’re not out in the real world,” Kini said. “That includes everything from leadership to managing up to figuring out how to build a team.”

                                                                                                                            Phil Rockrohr