MBA: The Fortune Elite’s Preferred Degree

by John A. Byrne on

Indra K. Nooyi

When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was an MBA student at Yale's School of Management she was "totally and completely broke."

If your ambition is to one day become the chief executive officer of a Fortune 100 company, you’d be wise to get an MBA degree—and get it from the most highly rated business school that will accept you.

That’s the inevitable conclusion from looking at the educational backgrounds of the CEOs of Fortune’s newest list of the top 100 companies released today (May 5). Some 42 of the 100 chieftains have MBAs or master’s degrees in either finance or economics. More tellingly, perhaps, 31 of them got their graduate degrees from top 25 business schools—and most of them got their MBA tickets punched in the 1970s and early 1980s before the big boom in graduate business education. (Also see Fortune 100 CEOs: When They Were MBA Students.) Interestingly, four of the six women CEOs in the Fortune 100 have MBA degrees.

Sure, there are plenty of people who rose to the top of their organizations with only a bachelor’s degree. And there’s even a famous few in the tech business who dropped out altogether, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Michael Dell. Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer is a dropout of sorts. He quit Stanford University’s MBA program in 1980 to join Microsoft, though he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in math and economics.

By and large, however, the credential of choice among Fortune’s corporate elite is the elite MBA degree. CEOs with master’s in business outnumber the lawyers (the second most popular degree with nine chieftains claiming J.D.s) by nearly five-to-one.

Harvard Business School upholds its reputation as the Cathedral of Capitalism. Its alums, from General Electric’s Jeff Immelt and J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, who also happened to be classmates together in Harvard’s Class of 1982, lead eight of the Fortune 100 companies, more than any other business school. There’s Boeing’s Jim McNerney, who was in the Class of 1975, with none other than George W. Bush. And there’s Charles Halderman of Freddie Mac and Steven Kandarian of MetLife, who in 1978 called his father at work to tell him he had been admitted to Harvard. All together, Harvard’s eight Fortune 100 chieftains employ more than one million people and run companies with a total market capitalization of $550 billion, a sum that exceeds the gross domestic product (GDP) of Switzerland.

Columbia Business School comes next with half as many Fortune 100 CEOs: four, including Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit, Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, and Lockheed Martin’s Robert Stevens.

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Cornell’s Johnson School of Business each have a trio of CEOs in the Fortune 100. Kellogg counts Target’s Gregg Steinhafel, DuPont’s Ellen Kullman, and Allstate’s Thomas Wilson. Cornell is well represented by Kraft Foods’ Irene Rosenfeld, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, and SprintNextel’s Daniel Hesse.

Stanford Graduate School of Business can lay claim to two Fortune 100 chieftains with MBAs, surprisingly neither of them in the tech business: Abbott Laboratories’ Miles White and Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes.

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  • Jane

    Interesting. Given how many students Havard and Columbia, have pumped out over the years…this should not be exactly surprising. Whereas, many b school alums may be international leaders…and senior executives. making it to the top depends on presented opportunities.
    Sears is a fortune 100?!

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/llavelle/ Louis Lavelle

    For what it’s worth, three professors from INSEAD published a study in Harvard Business Review on this very subject a little more than a year ago, but it had a sample more than ten times as large as this one: 1,100 global CEOs. Only a third had MBAs. The companies run by CEOs with MBAs performed better–total shareholder return of 93% over the CEOs’ entire tenure for the MBAs versus 81% for the non-MBAs–but a lot of things may have influenced that: the industries MBAs flock to, the length of their tenure, etc. Also, I’ll point out the obvious: business people get MBAs and business people run companies–it should come as no surprise that a lot of people who run very big companies have MBAs. What else are they going to have? Degrees in art history? If CEOs with MBAs are such a competitive advantage then why doesn’t every company run out and get one–it’s not like there’s a shortage. I think this question is a lot more complicated than this makes it out to be.

    Louis Lavelle
    Associate Editor
    Bloomberg Businessweek

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Thanks Lou for that info.

  • Mazdak Asgary

    Thanks for the great article, John.

    One additional Cornell CEO: Lowell McAdam of Verizon Wireless. He has recently been elevated to President & COO of Verizon Inc., and will succeed Ivan Seidenberg this fall as CEO of Verizon Inc.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Thanks and thanks for the note on McAdam. That’s wonderful news.

  • Mike Jones

    Lowell McAdam graduated from Cornell as an undergrad, not MBA.

  • raj

    Ford CEO has a management degree (S.M. / Sloan Fellow) and Pepsi CEO has business degree from India and a master’s from Yale.

  • lulz

    Dan Hesse was a Sloan Fellow

  • JC

    So 92% of the Fortune 100 CEOs don’t have a Harvard MBA.

    The studies all show that the percentage of top CEOs who went Harvard for undergrad or MBA is dropping every year.

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