Read the right edition of a major magazine like Forbes or U.S. News and an interesting detail pops out - climbing the ladder all the way to the top is not the automatic byproduct of going to the right school. If people take a more comprehensive view of how Fortune 500 CEOs build their careers, they may realize that there are a number of worthwhile skills and experiences that can be had far away from ivy-covered walls. We look at what it actually takes to get to the top in business. (These 10 entrepreneurs' names will live on long into the future. Check out The 10 Greatest Entrepreneurs.)
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Ivy Only Goes So Far
At an undergraduate level, less than 20% of Fortune 500 CEOs get their degrees from Ivy League schools (including Ivy League-caliber schools like Stanford). While those numbers go up when graduate degrees are added into the mix (roughly 12% of CEOs have some degree from Harvard alone), the reality is that the University of Wisconsin produces just as many CEOs at the undergraduate level as Harvard.
Of course these comparisons are crude; Wisconsin is far larger than Harvard. The point, though, is that quality can rise to the top in places other than the most highly-regarded universities in the United States. What's more, the Ivy League graduates more than 10,000 people each year, and clearly the vast majority of them will not go on to lead a Fortune 500 company. So it's not just the degree that leads to the executive suite, there is more that goes into the making of a CEO.
Focus and Determination
Focus and determination clearly play a large role in the making of a CEO. It takes focus to get through a challenging undergrad program and stay away from the temptations that college life offers. There are always going to be setbacks - rejections from first choice schools, an inability to score a prime internship, someone else getting a promotion - but the key point is in how the CEO-to-be responds to them.
Consider the nearly day-to-day pounding that CEOs of companies like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) or Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) take. While they are indeed responsible for the setting the tone and culture for their corporations, it is not as though they single-handedly contaminated pill bottles, screwed up a cement job or robo-signed a loan. Self-appointed corporate gadflys may call them clueless or conniving but other words also come to mind - focused, determined and tough.
Refuse to be knocked off track or always look to find a way to turn around a bad situation and climbing the corporate ladder is a real possibility; go home at the first sign of trouble and the executive suite is basically out of reach. (Without some basic knowledge, you won't get the job. See Top Things To Know For An Investment Banking Interview.)
Look for Responsibility … and Deliver
There are plenty of cynical jokes about "failing upward" and the "Peter Principle," but the reality is that this applies mostly to the level of middle management. What most CEOs show in their record is a history of succeeding at multiple levels and a willingness to take on more responsibility at each level. "It's not in my job description" is venomous to one's promotion prospects and the only way someone can expect to get more responsibility (and to a large extent the position of CEO is a position of ultimate responsibility) is to go above and beyond in the course of their current duties.
Do It Yourself
Read the bios of Fortune 500 CEOs and there are numerous stories of people starting up their own businesses in high school or college, often paying for their education with the proceeds of these businesses. Even those who do not go into business for themselves tend to show outsized ambition and organization skills - leading social organizations, taking charge of charitable projects and otherwise leading their peers.
Not surprisingly, a fair number of CEOs owe their position to the fact that they own the company. Bill Gates and Michael Dell famously founded Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and Dell (Nasdaq:DELL), respectively, while undergraduates, while Google's (Nadsaq:GOOG) founders got to work while pursuing their PhD programs.
This drive to lead and build is a double-edged sword. Those who have it have a leg up on everybody else when it comes to the less-quantifiable skills that often enable people to become CEOs. On the other hand, those who are not entrepreneurial just aren't - it is very difficult to create a willing leader out of someone who prefers that others take the risks that go with leadership. (The CFA Institute provides members with a variety of ongoing career and networking benefits. Refer to Ongoing Career Benefits For CFAs.)
The Bottom Line
While it is true that a high-octane education helps and that people often learn just as many valuable lessons outside of the classroom as inside, a person's work ethic, ambition and desire for success is even more important. It may be convenient to imagine or assume that the world of executive CEOs an exclusive club that people are born into, a search through the resumes suggests that drive, focus, and ability are paramount and those are available to any who work for them.