If leading a business is in your sights there are a few ways to make it happen. You could start your own company, get an MBA and catapult yourself into a management team or just get your foot in the door wherever you want to work and climb up the ranks one step at a time. Thirteen years ago Todd Berger, at 21, chose the latter route when he took a job as a dispatcher for Transportation Solutions Enterprises(TSE), a Chicago-based transportation and logistics company. He's now president and CEO of the company which has more than $300 million in sales, has grown by almost 200 percent in the past five years and plans to hire nearly 200 employees this year. Here's what he says he learned along the way.

Learn to replace yourself with A-players.

In other words, as you reach the next level in your career, make sure whoever replaces you in your former position will do a remarkable job so the only direction you're left to proceed is upward. "Don't give yourself any excuses to get back into the business or if you don't get to that next branch or next rung, don't give yourself any way back," he says. "You have to force yourself up to that next rung."

Hold yourself accountable to reaching your career goals.

If being CEO is what you want, say it out loud, write it down or tell someone else, such as a friend, confidant or spouse. "It just makes you accountable to hit it," he says. "And if you don't tell people what your intent and your goals are, more times than not you don't end up in the exact place you want to be."

Put the company first.

Getting to number one involves some trade-offs and the simple concept of hard work, day after day. In Berger's case it was often stretches of 16-hour work days but he told himself they wouldn't last forever. "When you're not making a lot of money or you haven't gotten the promotions up through the ranks yet, it's just hard to keep your head straight forward," he says. "But you just have to show up every day, put your head down and do what's best for the company."

Don't be a suck-up.

Not catering to a boss is a prerequisite for any leader. So, if the top is where you want to be, you need to be comfortable challenging management in the interest of delivering for the company, while working to get buy-in from the organization as a whole. "That's always been a key strength of mine--getting the buy-in and being open, available for people, because I'm on the same journey or I've been on the same journey they are," he says. "So I can empathize and often be critical, as needed, because I've played most of those positions."

Don't be afraid to fail.

Leaders aren't afraid to take chances, even if they turn out to be mistakes because when you fail, you learn. "I've failed plenty of times in my career and they're some of my best stories, my best learning lessons, and some of them have become some of my best business lines," he says.

Get a mentor.

It should be someone outside your company who has the wisdom and experience to help steer you in the right directions. In Berger's case, it was Dennis Springer, a retired CFO for BNSF Railway who Berger met at a luncheon and decided was one of the smartest people he had ever met. How to get a mentor like him? "You put yourself out there like any other relationship, and say, 'I really value some of the things you were saying. I think you have a lot to offer. Do you mind if I buy you another lunch and pick your brain?'" Berger suggests. "Beers always help. You just have to put yourself out there."

Be authentic.

As you're climbing the ranks of any company you'll win friends and allies by being real. "Being open, being candid, being transparent--it's a huge win. People don't have to guess where you're coming from," he says. "Over time it just builds that credibility and it allows you to problem solve together."

Use the golden rule.

Don't remember what it is? Just treat people how you want to be treated. "People want to talk to somebody who's smiling, who has integrity, who's respectful, who's open," he says. "It's the same way someone would go out to a bar and make a friend, right?"

Published on: Sep 30, 2014
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