What degrees do CEOs have?

Female CEOs sitting at a desk

The CEO of a company is like the captain of a ship, making major decisions about where to steer a venture that may span continents and employ thousands. It’s a role with substantial responsibility, requiring many different management and leadership skills.

What kind of training and education adequately prepares a person to take on this challenging role? Do you need a broad understanding of business, a detailed understanding of your specific industry field, or leadership training specifically designed to help you lead a company?

This question is particularly pertinent today, in a world where companies need exceptional leaders to help them navigate the necessary transition to a low-carbon, sustainable and ethical economy.

So, what degree do you need to be a CEO?

The education background of CEOs

Firstly, let’s take a look at the data.

A study conducted by Forbes Magazine in 2019 took a look at the data on the most common undergraduate degrees of CEOs of all Fortune 100 (F100) companies. Here’s what they found:

  • The Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Business Administration was the most popular undergraduate degrees among Fortune 100 CEOs, with 53% of CEOs identified as having obtained one of these two degrees.
  • A Bachelor of Science degree is held by 47% of the CEOs who received an undergraduate degree, but 45% of those with a Bachelor of Science majored in a business field (e.g., Accounting, Finance, Television and Radio etc.)
  • Almost all Fortune 100 CEOs in tech-related fields have undergraduate degrees directly related to engineering; For example, Apple’s Tim Cook has a degree in Industrial Engineering and Alphabet’s Larry Page has a degree in Computer Engineering.
  • Some CEOs had degrees completely unrelated to their industry; for example, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, has a degree in History and Gail Boudreaux, Anthem’s CEO, studied Psychology and Sociology.

As you can see from this Forbes Magazine study, there is a noticeable trend among CEOs to choose broad degrees that include the study of Business and Economics. However, the study also shows us that there is no one course that applies to the career of every CEO.

In fact, the data shows the course that you need to study to become a CEO will also depend on the industry you want to work in. If you want to become a CEO in the tech industry, for example, it’s more likely you will need to study a Bachelor of Information Technology or something similar.

A recent study by language provider Preply on the qualifications of the top 1,000 CEOs from the Forbes list of largest global companies found that:

  • Economics, business administration, and engineering are the most popular subjects studied by top CEOs
  • On average, 34.6% of top CEOs have a master’s or doctorate degree and
  • 22.3% of top CEOs have a Master of Business Administration (MBA),
  • 16.4% of top CEOs studied abroad; and
  • Only 4.7% of top CEOs worldwide are women.

Another 2021 study by StudyEU suggests that the number of CEOs who hold postgraduate degrees including an MBA changes significantly according to location:

  • In Europe, 74% of CEOs have a masters degree.
  • Chinese top CEOs seem to be the most educated, with 28% holding a doctorate degree.
  • 52% of North American CEOs have obtained at least a Master’s degree.
  • In Australia, around 60% of company leaders have a Master’s degree or higher.

As we can see from these studies, an MBA or other postgraduate course can also be considered a viable and maybe even necessary pathway to the CEO role, if you are working in the EU or another region where it is more generally expected.

As we can also see from this data there is a lot more work to be done to promote gender equality worldwide in senior management positions: an important task for sustained global development and prosperity according to research by McKinsey and others.

CEOs and their academic qualifications

As you can see from the data above the pathway towards the CEO role is diverse, but in general involves gaining an undergraduate and/or postgraduate qualification in Business, Engineering, ICT, Marketing or similar areas.

To put it into a more personal perspective, let’s take a look at the degrees held by CEOs of some of the most successful companies in Australia and around the world. 

Brad Banducci, CEO of Woolworths Group

  • Bachelor of Law from the University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Bachelor of Commerce from the University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • MBA from The Australian Graduate School of Management

Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA Investment

  • Bachelor of Finance and Marketing from the University of Houston
  • MBA from Baylor University (Hankamer School of Business)

Shemara Wikramanayake, CEO of Macquarie Group (Australia)

  • Bachelor of Law
  • Bachelor of Commerce
  • Advanced MBA from Harvard University

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

  • Bachelor of Science (Industrial Engineering) from Auburn University
  • MBA from Duke University

Anthony Eisen, Co-CEO of Afterpay (Australia)

  • Bachelor of Commerce

Pichai Sundararajan, CEO of Alphabet Inc. (Google)

  • Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur
  • Master of Science from Stanford
  • MBA from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Vanessa Hudson, CEO of Qantas

  • Bachelor of Business from University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

Vicki Brady, CEO of Telstra

  • Bachelor of Commerce from the Australian National University
  • Master of Science in Management from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Marnie Baker, CEO of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank

  • Bachelor of Business from La Trobe University

These examples demonstrate that business, commerce, law and engineering are all suitable undergraduate degrees for the CEO role. These cases also show that the MBA continues to be the postgraduate degree of choice among CEOs globally.

Want to become a CEO? See here for information on all undergraduate and postgraduate courses in business at Torrens University Australia.

Check our Business Courses to learn more
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