How To Become CEO at Age 40 (or Even Younger)!

At the start of this year, I was appointed President and CEO of Breakthrough Leadership® Management Consultancy, Inc. An affiliate of the UN group of companies, Breakthrough Leadership® serves multinationals and SMEs through coaching and consultancy hence the title Chief Equipping Officer – cool right? This happened just after my 40th birthday. Doubly cool!





Then I got scared. Oh my, this is it! Make or break. But eventually I realized that I’m in good company as the world began seeing a new generation of 40-and-under CEOs. For generations, the corner office has been the realm of experienced, old-timers as stereotyped in the movies. But in recent decades, the global arena grew accustomed to fresher faces, as such young visionaries as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – strong evidences that today’s young entrepreneurs can scale the corporate ladder, too.



There are about 140 Chief Executive Officers age 40 or younger of publicly traded companies around the world, according to data compiled by Capital IQ. Of these, nearly 100 are located within the United States, while another 40 or so lead companies based in other countries. The youngest is the CEO of StealthGas in Athens, Greece — Harry Vafias is only 28.


How did they get to their positions? Here’s some tips on how to have that corner office:


(1) Start your own company from scratch. Many of the youngest CEOs achieved their position by launching their own companies. “If you really want to be a CEO at a young age, start a company and call yourself a CEO,” says David Liu, who recently turned 41 but has been CEO of wedding information website The Knot since age 30.Michael Rubin started his business career at age 13, running a ski-tuning shop out of his parents’ basement. He went on to open several retail ski shops in New York and Pennsylvania by the time he graduated from high school. At 34, Rubin became chief executive of GSI Commerce with $500+ million in revenue.


Aside from Breakthrough Leadership® which I own 20% of. I also started DigitalBrand Asia. You see, my real background is in Marketing/ Advertising, so despite my passion for training and development, I didn’t want to let go of that side of me. DigitalBrand Asia is a design and branding company on a web-based platform, making our offerings global and low-cost.


(2) Join the Technology or Internet sector. This may still be the quickest road to the top. Several CEOs at age 40 are involved in technology products or services than any other industry. A tech background can also help executives in related businesses, such as retail, investments and even learning/ education.


Being a marketing practitioner, migrating to digital media is a natural next step so I took some courses in Digital Marketing and that gave me the edge to be preferred by internet-based businesses like All Famous Digital, I was their Chief Marketing Officer and Civicom Pacific, as their Deputy Country Manager. It was really a big jump from my managerial positions. My last employment stint was with Copylandia Office Systems Corporation (Develop/Konica Minolta) as their Marketing Director. Again my digital marketing competency was a plus.


(3) A dose of experience is still what you need. Pursue a broad range of career experiences that will help you earn merits towards that 3-letter post. “Look for diversity of experiences, because to be a CEO you need to be able to understand and set strategy for every facet of the business,” says Jonathan Huberman, CEO of Zip-disk storage at age 40, following stints in tech, management consulting, venture capital, and hedge funds.


It’s never easy to be a CEO and for those 40 and under it can be even more challenging. It’s like having children. When we had our eldest, we don’t know what to do. God knows how we wished we had done things differently. But when our second child came, we know better. She was a recipient of better baby care. It doesn’t hurt to have previous management experience.


(4) Requires hard work and dedication. And like having children, CEOs typically say the job is worth any sleepless nights. From the incubation period to that big launch. From video conferencing to traveling abroad. From promotions and partnerships to day-to-day operations. It’s a 24/7 commitment.


“I have to say I really love it,” says Michael Chasen, 35-year-old head of school software developer Blackboard. “I thrive on the fast pace and excitement in running a fast-growth, successful company.”


(5) Be a Risk-Taker. The people who become CEO at a young age are increasingly unafraid to take risks. Peter Cappelli, a management professor at Wharton School said, “Young CEOs are willing to look for opportunities to stand out.” But let me warn that bigger risk may have unwanted consequences. Some of the worst corporate scandal throughout history were committed by young executives.


When making decisions, I subscribe still on what my values are. It’s alright and progressive to take risks but our values serve as guideposts are we navigate through our management and marketing routes.


(6) Do what drives you. Ultimately, whether a CEO or not, at any given age, you need to have a passion for the job. You do what you love and you’ll love what you do. That’s the bottom line. Do something that you really love doing. If you’re not doing something that you really like, you’re not going to be that successful at it. The best CEOs grow into the position because they followed what excited them, not because they set out to become CEOs.


Last February 2013, several Filipino leaders under the age of 40 were recognized by the US-based Development Executive Group (Devex) as “Manila’s 40 under 40.” Some of the awardees include Technical Education and Skills Development Authority Director General Joel Villanueva, Valenzuela Mayor Sherwin Gatchalian, Sarangani Governor Miguel Rene Dominguez and Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, Anna Oposa, founder of the Save Philippine Seas Foundation and actor Dingdong Dantes, founder of the education NGO YesPinoy Foundation.


These mix of young professionals and philanthropists in government, international aid agencies, media, civil society and nongovernment sector all have one thing in common – passion! They worked on or established what they are passionate about.


(7) Lastly, improve your people skills. Today’s young CEOs are likely to have a better understanding of technology and globalization than did the luminous leaders of past decades. But their biggest challenge is the part where they lead and manage people. We are Breakthrough Leadership® believes that it takes a while for even really smart young CEOs to understand it’s people first, strategy or results follow second. That comes from experience and mistakes, and I don’t think there’s a shortcut.


Let Breakthrough Leadership® help you and your people’s leadership development that brings success to your organization.

Avail our FREE Breakthrough Leadership Assessment.

Call Roxanne Hernandez at 887-5980 or 889-1111 loc. 739.

You may also email or

visit for more information.



Sources: “Manila’s 40 under 40” by Tarra Quismundo (Philippine Daily Inquirer) and “The New Boss — Younger Than the Old Boss” by Marc Hogan (BusinessWeek Online)



August 17, 2013
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