Want To Be A CEO? Follow A ‘Traditional’ Path

One of the great selling points of an MBA is that it helps to broaden your horizons and create new, exciting opportunities. But will it help you get to the very pinnacle of your profession? New research suggests that the answer is … maybe not. The authors of a forthcoming paper which looks at the career trajectories of Fortune 100 CEOs have discovered that the route to the top was, in general, defined by a “traditional, linear” career path. In other words, the CEOs kept a narrow focus.

The paper, The Way to the Top: Career Patterns of Fortune 100 CEOs, was written by a trio of professors at small European business schools: Michael Koch of Swansea University in the UK, Bernard Forgues of EMLYON Business School in France, and Vanessa Montiès of Montpellier Business School, also in France. They found that CEOs took an average of about 28 years to reach the peak of their profession, and most worked for fewer than three employers — in fact, more than a third (37%) of CEOs spent their entire career with the same company. Sector changes were rare, too, with the CEOs working in an average of just 1.6 industries, and nearly two-thirds — 62% — working in the same sector their whole career.

It seems that if you want to make it to the top, it’s best to learn one thing well and stick to it. And that suggests, in a graduate school landscape increasingly filled with specialization opportunities, that an MBA might not be the best option.


In terms of business education, for many, a master’s degree is unquestionably a better option than an MBA. In an increasingly complex world, drilling down and becoming an expert in a narrow field sounds sensible, and the past decade has seen a sharp increase in the range of master’s courses on offer. In Europe, in particular, many B-schools offer master’s in finance, management, or public administration, while others have started offering even more focused programs: Cass Business School, in London, offers a master’s in Shipping and Energy, for example, while Milan’s SDA Bocconi School of Management has 17 master’s courses, including one in Luxury Management.

Is it better for would-be CEOs to be generalists or specialists? “All CEOs have to become generalists at some point, as that is a generalist position,” Professor Forgues says. The question, he continues, is deciding at what stage of your career to widen or tighten your focus. The research suggests that there are two possible strategies. One is to be a generalist from the start. “Half of the top CEOs — 48 to be precise — were generalists, with 20% never setting foot outside of a general management position throughout their career,” Forgues says. “The 52 remaining top CEOs started as specialists before moving to a general management position.”

He adds that the strategy you choose probably depends on your sector. “Those who started as consultants or engineers shifted to general management fairly early in their career,” he says, “while those starting in finance were able to retain a finance position for longer before shifting to general management.”

One’s approach to business education probably also depends on where in the world one works. Unlike in the United States, where students often feel that they can choose between a specialized master’s and an MBA, in Europe one’s career path is marked out by earlier experiences, says Professor Markus Rudolf, dean of Germany’s WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management. In Europe, Rudolf says, only if you have a first degree in business can you take a master’s, “but our MBA students tend to have degrees in law, medical science, engineering and so on, and they are looking to add a management component. Whether you take a master’s or an MBA is largely dependent on what you have studied before.”


Tradition plays a role, too. While the MBA has been the gold standard in business education in the U.S. for decades, it has only really been on the European radar for around 20 years. Employers in Europe tend to understand better what a master’s involves. However, that might be changing. “If you have a master’s in finance from a big-name business school, then it is not always clear what that means,” says Marco Tortoriello, associate dean of the Master’s Division at Milan’s Bocconi School. “Finance is a big area. But everyone seems to have an intuitive understanding of what an MBA is.”

So does the MBA’s popularity mean the master’s degree will become less popular in Europe? Perhaps. Smaller business schools have begun to offer niche master’s qualifications to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, and the big schools are fighting back by making their MBAs more customizable. London Business School now has over 90 electives, while INSEAD offers more than 70. An MBA where you can pick and choose might blur the boundaries between generalist and specialist qualifications — or deliver the both of best worlds.

But not everyone wants to become a CEO in a corporation, making it unlikely master’s degrees will die out altogether. Some are quite happy being scientists or salespeople or journalists and have no need for general management skills. And there is, of course, another route to becoming a CEO: starting your own business. “Some people just want to be independent, and not have a boss,” the Beisheim School’s Rudolf says. “It’s not important to them that they are in charge of other people.”

For those ambitious sorts who do want the three magic letters “CEO” after their name, an MBA will probably increase their chances. But the research shows that understanding their employment market and picking the right time to gain qualifications are as important as the qualifications themselves.


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