The CEOs of Apple, Microsoft, Blackrock, and JP Morgan all hold MBA degrees. They’re among countless chief executives who have risen to the top after graduating from business school.
According to a recent study, 22% of the world’s top CEOs have MBA degrees. The vast majority are located in the US—the birthplace of the MBA—where around 69% of CEOs are MBA grads. There are also large numbers of MBA-educated CEOs in countries like China, France, and the UK.
So why are there so many CEOs with MBAs? And how does an MBA prepare you for executive success? BusinessBecause spoke with experts to find out.
CEOs with MBAs have fundamental business skills
As generalist degrees, MBAs teach key business fundamentals ranging from marketing, to finance, to organizational behavior. This broad spectrum of teaching prepares CEOs for the wide remit they will cover as the head of a company.
“A CEO needs to have a good understanding of what the different functions of an organization are responsible for, and how they approach diverse business challenges,” explains Mikko Laukkanen, academic director at Aalto University Executive Education.
For Marieke Flament, CEO of Near Foundation, a blockchain-based IT nonprofit organization, an MBA at London Business School (LBS) helped her transition to the C-Suite after a career as a technical specialist.
“Before the MBA I was very much a computer science engineer and after the MBA I feel I became a generalist who could think about connecting the dots and having different perspectives,” she explains.
Like all CEOs, Marieke is responsible for coordinating the various sections of her business and ensuring everyone is moving in the same direction. This requires a diverse set of skills.
While all CEOs have their own unique style, a typical chief executive needs strong interpersonal and communication skills, the ability to take key decisions and manage uncertainty, and a growth mindset. All of this combines to form a framework for leadership.
Throughout case studies, group projects, business simulators, extracurricular activities, and professional experiences, an MBA provides ample opportunity to develop many of these key skills.
“A large focus of the MBA is around leadership development—honing the emotional intelligence and soft skills required to get the best out of those around you,” says Brandon Kirby, MBA recruitment and admissions director at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM).
“An MBA is designed for you to reflect on who you are as a leader, as well as focusing on how to inspire those around you.”
CEOs with MBAs have diverse experience
A key selling point for an MBA—and one of the reasons why the qualification tends to require a hefty fee—is the broad range of experiences you are exposed to while studying.
The MBA experience also goes beyond the classroom: many students undertake semesters abroad, go on internships, and take part in clubs and associations. There are also opportunities to network with industry leaders and expert professors.
“Regular interactive sessions and workshops with industry leaders are there to give you great exposure to the real-life work environment and a first-hand insight into the thought process of accomplished business leaders,” says Antonio Rodriguez, managing director at GBSB Global Business School in Barcelona.
Interacting with members of your cohort can be equally fruitful. The typical MBA cohort comprises students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including different countries, industries, and even generations.
Working alongside your classmates and sharing your experience over the course of a program can broaden your cultural awareness and understanding of different viewpoints.
Geeseok Oh studied his MBA at The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Business School. He is now CEO of the Asia Pacific region at Qraft Technologies, an artificial intelligence-led asset management firm.
Geeseok feels that experiences outside of the classroom were influential in shaping the way he thinks.
“If I could offer any advice to an MBA candidate, it would be to mingle with their cohort as much as possible,” he says. “Gaining knowledge is one thing but more importantly it will expand your perception.”
Is an MBA essential to become a CEO?
So is an MBA essential to become a CEO? MBAs certainly provide key skills and diverse experiences that can prepare you for executive life. It’s clear, then, to see why more than 20% of the world’s top CEOs have MBAs.
But what about those without an MBA?
Many top CEOs around the world have gained the same skills via a different path. Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, rose to lead the company after a 25-year banking career involving stints in the legal, wealth management, and investment management divisions.
Safra Catz, CEO of tech conglomerate, Oracle, spent more than 10 years in investment banking before joining Oracle as senior vice president in 1999. She was named joint CEO in 2011 and became the sole CEO in 2019, 20 years after joining the company.
Both wield the necessary qualities to lead their respective firms, however they gained them through years of professional experience.
“It is without question that a CEO needs the skills that an MBA program teaches,” says Mikko from Aalto. “Whether a person acquires these skills through an MBA or by some other—often more costly and time consuming—way is then another discussion.”
In the competitive process of choosing a CEO, having an MBA can act as a differentiator between candidates. For Marieke, she feels her time at LBS was essential in preparing for life in the C-Suite.