3 CEOs and Their Best Career Moves

Markets Motley Fool

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." 
-- Michael Jordan  

Continue Reading Below

There are many roads to Rome and many ways that one can become the chief executive officer of a company. You can achieve great success without getting quite to the top office, too. Here are three high-profile leaders and some of the moves that helped them achieve their success -- which we can apply to our own lives and careers at many levels.

IBM's Ginni Rometty: Looking for challenges

Ginni Rometty took over the reins at IBM in 2012 and has been leading its transformation into more of a cloud-computing company in recent years. What does she credit with her business success? Taking on challenges has been one key. She explained in a 2015 commencement address at Northwestern University:

[G]rowth and comfort never co‑exist. I want you to close your eyes... and ask yourself, when have you learned the most? I guarantee it's when you felt at risk. So, when you feel anxious, maybe tomorrow, when you leave and start a new job, I guarantee that that is a good sign. And this is proven to be a really important realization to me throughout my whole career. I've always looked for challenges and I have found plenty.

Rometty is embracing plenty of challenges at IBM, and she's taking a long view, as good CEOs do, instead of aiming for shorter-term success. She has explained in Fortune:

Continue Reading Below

[I see] the importance of moving to the future, making decisions for the long term and betting big. That's something everyone says, but it's easier said than done. When it comes to managing for the long term, we sold our semiconductor manufacturing operations last year. We did it in order to move to higher value. We actually shrank the company while many voices were calling out for top-line growth. And it's doubly hard with something that has been part of your company for more than half a century. While chip research and development are critical, chip manufacturing was no longer core to IBM's future. We've done this before -- with PCs and commodity servers -- and no doubt we'll do it again. It's what you do when your goal isn't just short-term results, but successfully leading your industry in the future.

General Motors' Mary Barra: Being in the right path

For someone aiming for the top post at a company, there's a more promising and a less promising way to get there: functional jobs vs. operational jobs. Mary Barra was a lifer at General Motors, working there for decades before being tapped to head the ailing company, and she spent significant time on the operational side of the business, leading product development before ascending to the CEO position.

People working -- and advancing -- in more functional areas of a company, such as finance or human resources -- may find it harder to reach the top job, as that's often filled by people coming from operations. That does make sense, arguably, since those working most closely with the products or services the company offers may have the best understanding of the company and its challenges and opportunities.

Still, among the many jobs Barra held at GM, she did work in human resources for a while, and there's value in those kinds of jobs, too -- as HR executives tend to get good at managing people and managing managers. As Susan Meisenger, former CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, has noted, that job "gave [Barra] an extraordinary opportunity to know the organizational structure, to know all the pieces of the company. It got her exposure to senior leaders from across the organization."

Overall, by working -- and being known for good work -- in many different positions in the company and by getting to know leaders in every corner, Mary Barra positioned herself well to keep rising. Recent results at General Motors suggest she's still succeeding.

Harry Potter's J.K. Rowling: Persistence

You may not think of best-selling Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling as a CEO, but she's certainly the top dog of her personal business enterprise, and according to Forbes, she raked in more than $95 million so far this year -- more than many companies bring in. While she has attained the title of billionaire, she has reportedly fallen to the mere rank of millionaire due to her charitable giving.

So what career move has been her most effective one? Persistence. Rowling has said that she always wanted to be a writer, but it's not the kind of thing that one can easily start doing and make a living at -- at least not when you're writing fiction. So she spent years outlining and writing a long saga about Harry Potter while also holding down other jobs and raising her daughter. It wasn't easy, and as she related in a commencement address at Harvard: "I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. ... [B]y every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew."

She went on to discuss "the benefits of failure":

[F]ailure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

As you think about how to advance further in your own career, whether you're aiming for the top or just a higher position, keep the above tips in mind. Think about the path you're on, embrace challenges, and stick with it.

The $16,122 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook
If you're like most Americans, you're a few years (or more) behind on your retirement savings. But a handful of little-known "Social Security secrets" could help ensure a boost in your retirement income. For example: one easy trick could pay you as much as $16,122 more... each year! Once you learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits, we think you could retire confidently with the peace of mind we're all after. Simply click here to discover how to learn more about these strategies.

Selena Maranjian owns shares of IBM. The Motley Fool recommends synthetic covered calls on IBM. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.