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Inside the Brain of a CEO

Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates — these visionary CEOs not only shore up bottom lines, but they usher in revolutions. So, what exactly is going on in their heads? How do CEOs think about the day-to-day success of their businesses, as well as the broader impact they hope to have on society? To understand, we’ve compiled the most common characteristics shared by CEOs, plus key advice from some of the most outstanding leaders.


There are 210,160 CEOs in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industries that employ the most CEOs are management (76%), computers (35%), state government (33%), local government (32%) and schools (12%)(1) Top executives typically have at least 5 years of experience, and about half of them work more than 40 hours per week. (1)

“To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there.” — Jeff Bezos (2)

According to PayScale, the annual salary of a CEO grows with their experience; those with:

  • 0 to 5 years earn $120,000
  • 5 to 10 years earn $154,000
  • 10 to 20 years earn $193,000
  • 20 years or more earn $229,000

In addition to their salary, CEOs on average earn $31,526 in bonuses, $20,716 in profit-sharing and $30,000 in commissions. (3)

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” — Steve Jobs (2)


Many consider the Fortune 500 to be the measure of the world’s largest corporations by revenue and the standard bearer for the CEOs behind those companies. Of Fortune 500 CEOs, 95.2% are men and 4.8%are women. (4) The average age is 50(5) The most popular degree is the MBA (42.6%)(6) Only 34.1%started the company they head, with 61.2% being hired for the job. Two-thirds have a background in the company’s industry, while one-third came from a different field.

“Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future. I try to focus on that: what is the future really going to be? And how do we create it? And how do we power our organization to really focus on that and really drive it at a high rate?” — Larry Page (2)

At the beginning of their careers:

  • Nearly 25% of Fortune 500 CEOs started at 22 years old
  • 14% started at 23
  • 15% started at 24
  • 8% started from 29 to 30

Around 4 out of 10 hail from the same 4 states; California, Texas, Illinois and New York. (7) Their average salary is $11.5 million(9)

“Don’t make the same decision twice. Spend time and thought to make a solid decision the first time so that you don’t revisit the issue unnecessarily. If you’re too willing to reopen issues, it interferes not only with your execution but also with your motivation to make a decision in the first place. After all, why bother deciding an issue if it isn’t really decided?” — Bill Gates (10)


An analysis of Fortune 100 CEOs is further revealing. In terms of education, more than 50% of these global business leaders have degrees in business, economics or accounting, and 27% studied engineering or science. Only 14% pursued law. In terms of career path, 79% were promoted internally and 21% were outsiders. Nearly 75% came from operations, and 32% previously served as CFOs. (11)

“Above all, you want to create something you are proud of. That’s always been my philosophy of business. I can honestly say that I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If that is the sole motive, then I believe you are better off doing nothing.” — Richard Branson (10)

Men make up 92% of Fortune 100 CEOs, women 8%. The average age is 57, and the average compensation is $18.4 million. In terms of graduate degrees, 57% hold MBAs, 20% JDs, 6% economics degrees and 17% other. (11)

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.” — Warren Buffett (2)