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Capital Recruit | The people specialists in Canberra recruitment

How to become a CEO: more than skills and qualifications

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Progressing to the top C-suite position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is a big career step for most, and understanding what a Board looks for when appointing the next CEO is essential to ensure you stand out in a pool of talented candidates.

Being prepared to lay out your strategy if you were appointed, demonstrating your knowledge of the risk environment, or identifying how you might navigate the organisation through economic opportunities are critical when it comes to pitching to a Board.

What makes a CEO great largely depends on the organisation and its needs. Attributes that CEOs often have in common include leadership skills, and the ability to ensure the governance, risk management, and financial sustainability of an organisation. However, there are a lot of factors unique to the candidate and the organisation that ultimately make one person more suitable for the role.

There is no right or wrong answer, but ultimately it comes down to the right fit.

Skills and qualifications of a CEO

Like most jobs, we start by looking at the candidate’s background. For example, if they have a background in a not-for-profit, membership-based organisation, or commercial business. Some candidates will come from an operational capacity such as a Chief Operating Officer, have extensive sector experience, or have run their own business.

Experiences may differ however Boards generally expect a candidate to have a Master of Business Administration qualification or to be a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Generally, Boards look for these common skills usually required of a CEO:

  • Decision-making skills, particularly the strength as a leader to have the ability to look big picture – sometimes this means making decisions that may not be popular but for the broader benefit of the organisation
  • Communicate on behalf of the organisation and have the commercial savvy required to manage and navigate PR
  • The ability to influence stakeholders and build relationships to achieve the organisation’s mission

It doesn’t stop there. The strength of your networks can be a key consideration for a Board when considering candidates for the top job. This may be particularly important for organisations that require government advocacy, and lobbying; knowing who to connect with, and building new relationships are core to what the organisation needs. This is critical, particularly in a city like Canberra where there are many advocacy groups and not-for-profits competing for government funding.

Your resume, tenure, and industry background will play a key part in the recruitment process. However, just as pertinent is the fit between your career motivations and what you can deliver and the unique requirements of the organisation.

It’s about the organisation

CEO roles can be vastly different, so it comes down to not only the experience but the motivations of the potential candidate.

It’s the role of a CEO to change, build, or grow an organisation if that’s what is required. A strategic leader would need to be a deep analytical thinker who can take the organisation on a fresh path. These types of CEOs need a level of gravitas to achieve this.

Or alternatively, the CEO will need to hold the status quo. This might mean the successful candidate is less dynamic but is strong in governance and financial sustainability. Or the candidate could be a leader whose strength lies in building a strong culture.

The Board takes the candidate’s approach to risk management into account. Being risk-averse and taking a systematic approach may better suit the organisation while approaching risk in an entrepreneurial way may be what the business needs. And sometimes consolidation is key, for example after a rough couple of years following the covid pandemic.

Finding your first CEO role

When you’re looking to step into a CEO role, looking internally first is a good start. Acting CEO can get you enough experience to begin looking for your first CEO role. you may bring to the table extensive sector or operational experience which may enable you to step into that top C-suite position.

Financial literacy and experience with administrative strategy, governance and risk are all skills that are highly sought after in C-level candidates. Diverse and broad knowledge across the various business functions and an ability to be strategic and holistic across an organisation both, internally and externally may also be critical.

If you’re looking to step up, ensuring you have demonstrated experience in these areas will help progress your application.

Scale also plays a role. Smaller organisations in the not-for-profit space often operate in a specific niche. A CEO of an organisation this size has less pull in the market than a CEO of a large national company. Smaller organisations can be a labour of love and community-focused, especially as the remuneration isn’t always comparable.

Jo has the following recommendations for potential new CEOs:

  • Find a CEO mentor who can guide you and provide advice
  • Possibly start with a smaller organisation so you can get that first CEO position on your CV
  • Recruitment 101 still applies: ensure your CV is in chronological order and before your interview ensure you have read through annual reports to get a handle on the financial situation of the business, size of staff and key achievements, areas of growth and/or decline
  • Understand the business or organisational challenge to help you address common interview questions such as “How will you approach your first 90 days in this role?”

Capital Recruit CEO vetting

Executive recruitment is a robust process, and it is important to get the hire right. As a result, the search process is thorough and comprehensive.

Finding the right fit comes through the screening process, before pitching you to the Board for an interview. This allows us to understand how you approach influencing stakeholders, and get an understanding of your network and what kind of leader you are. We take the time to understand what motivates you, and what you can add to an organisation.

Where possible, references are contacted at this stage which helps an organisation better understand what strengths you have and where the Board may need to support you.

A CEO’s reputation is important as it’s a reflection of the organisation you lead.


If you’re ready to step into a CEO opportunity, or if you’re looking for your next CEO role, contact us.

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Capital Recruit is based in Canberra, Australia

Our job vacancies are based across a number of States in Australia.

Currently we are working with clients who require Australian work rights to be in place prior to application and we do not have opportunities for sponsorship. For more information on Australian work rights, please visit www.immi.homeaffairs.gov.au.

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