To be a CEO at an early age

By Bob Bruner-

Further to my journey to Asia: I stopped in Honolulu to meet with Dustin Shindo, D’99. He is CEO of Hoku Scientific, a publicly-listed “materials science company that focuses on clean energy technologies.” Hoku holds leading-edge patents in the areas of fuel cells and solar cells. The company is very interesting especially because of its possible contributions to environmental sustainability. But also interesting is the personal story of Shindo: he became CEO at age 31 and took the company public not long after.

How much “seasoning” is required before one can become a CEO? In the case of a large company, the answer must be “plenty.” Headhunters and boards of directors will look for a variety of managerial assignments with rising responsibility and ideally spanning a range of functional areas. At each stop along the way, the candidate should have had positive reviews. But if you stop with that explanation, you imply that becoming CEO is just a matter of collecting merit badges or a lengthy resume. If you think there has to be more, you are certainly correct.

Dustin Shindo told me that he looks to hire employees who display the “three C’s”: competence, character, and commitment. The “competence” criterion might be summarized by the resume-oriented explanation above. “Commitment” means that Shindo looks for some passion or sense of mission in the candidate’s work: no drones need apply. “Character” refers to the deep personal attributes such as courage, wisdom, integrity, determination in the face of setbacks, empathy, leadership skills, and so on. These three “C’s” offer good shorthand for what it takes to become a CEO. My critique of the field of management education is that it can be overly-focused on competence, sometimes to the exclusion of character and commitment. Darden strikes a much better balance—we will always work to improve our own model, but right now Darden stands as an example to our peers of education for consistency.

The three “C’s” invite you to look for consistency of strengths. For instance, a competent but unethical drone would be a dangerous CEO—sadly, the business scandals of the past six years surfaced people of this description. A person of great character and commitment but not yet possessing the competencies for the job might be a candidate for management development but not for the top job. And so on.

Shindo’s comparative youth illustrates that with plenty of character and commitment, and competency appropriate for the (smallish) scale of an entrepreneurial firm, becoming CEO at an early age would not be an unrealistic ambition. I have taught a number of students at Darden who left corporate life early to establish their own firms—and they have performed admirably. The competencies you gain in an MBA program such as Darden’s can prepare you to run a small firm early in your career. The old resume-oriented “seasoning” model may be a poor guide to your readiness to lead a firm. Think instead of the three “C’s”, competence, character, and commitment.

Bob Bruner
Dean, Darden School of Business

Posted by Robert Bruner at 07/19/2006 01:37:52 AM