#AskJeremy – Careers Question: Undergraduate Major and Path To CEO

Becoming CEO of a top company is no easy feat. Most of them tout bachelors degrees and MBAs from world class schools, are on the board of multiple Fortune 500 and non-profit organizations, are over-networked both in and outside their industries, and have long lists of professional credentials and positions that would make just almost anyone envious. That’s because to get to the top in today’s global, hyper competitive world, it’s almost a prerequisite for executives to be on that path early — to gain significant training and exposure, experience at high performing corporations, strong mentor relationships, and also a quality business education, not only in terms of management but also in the realm of finance. And in a recent message from a reader, I received a question about just that.

I recently received a question from an undergraduate student who is currently thinking about what to study as he goes into his junior year of college. I responded with a few words, which I’ve shared below. But I’ll also note, that my answer only scratches the surface, as this question is complicated. Not only as there are an infinite number of factors that change over the course of a twenty year career but also because interests and career paths change too, not to mention ongoing changes in the economy.  To that end, it’s impossible to talk about all of them in a single post. Hopefully this response will be a good starting point.


THE ORIGINAL MESSAGE
Dear Jeremy,

First of all, I love your blog! It’s very well written. It’s informative! And it really is relevant. Please continue posting, especially responses to reader questions. So here’s my question.

I’m an undergraduate student now at a top 20 school, and I eventually want to end up as a CEO or in a position that’s similar.  But I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what to study.  When I look at everyone going into consulting, I see people with finance, accounting, and engineering, degrees, and the same is true for investment banking. But I’m also interested in other classes that are less technical, like sociology and communications, and I’m not sure which to choose as I think about going into business.

At the end of the day, I really just want to prepare myself to have the best chances now and going forward.  Do you have any insights?

Thank you in advance,
(name)

Hey (name)

Thanks so much for writing and for taking the time to ready my blog. I’m glad you’re finding the website to be a good source of information. I’m also always glad to see when I’m able to use my experiences to help others in their careers. I suspect that many other MBAs and experiences professionals might also be able to chime in on the topic. That’s especially true in this case, where you didn’t provide very thorough information in regards to your career interests, classes already taken, or professional background. So for now, I’ll keep my answer a bit more generic.

So, as you know, you’ve asked me a pretty tough question. In all fairness, the answer will never be the same for anyone, not even for two people with really similar backgrounds or similar career goals.  And frankly, there may not even be a right answer. Interestingly enough, I recently had a short phone conversation with a new friend from Chicago. Culture or strategy – which one is more important in business, we asked.  In a sense, because we had pretty different experiences, we also had different ideas on how to answer the question.

She is a rising second year MBA at a peer school outside of Chicago.  She was an accounting major at a local college in Chicago, got a CPA worked at an accounting firm after school, and really enjoyed, and thrived in, the field.  As for me, I was an anthropology major, and while I did have some finance experience before coming back to school, my role was not a traditional finance job, but instead I worked in the consulting field which balanced finance with human capital in addition to other general management issues. So as you might suspect, our perspectives began in different places, which made for an interesting conversation.

Conventional wisdom suggests that finance is king. That company performance is tied to financial metrics and that understanding those is critical to communicate with investors and eventually move the company forward. And as you might guess, her perspective was more similar to conventional wisdom than mine was. She valued her accounting training in undergrad and her post-graduate experience and gave her view on the important of that knowledge in CFO level role.  She was also happy that she didn’t get drilled too badly on technical questions in her MBA interviews.  And that’s a a really nice advantage.

Similarly, I’ve heard the same story from a few high level leaders over the past few years in my career. In an old post last year comparing HBS and Kellogg, I wrote about a Bain recruiting event where I heard this from a Senior Manager at the firm. He said “That finance is the language of business,” and if you don’t know finance and accounting, you probably won’t get to the top. And even if you did, you wouldn’t survive for too long, because you can’t speak effectively to the CFO, can’t compel shareholders to invest, and may not understand some of the typical economics cycles of the company. My professional mentor, and Partner at another large consulting firm agreed, as he studied finance, accounting and engineering in college.

On the other hand, there is a viewpoint that differs from conventional wisdom. Business gurus like Peter Drucker suggest that “culture will eat strategy for breakfast” and at the same time, Political leaders like Colin Powell say that the best leaders know that communications values are most important to maximize your impact.  I think the main idea is that cultural factors are important, because they have the potential to create divisions in a company and the potential to also create connections which form communities, and drive the actions the work in business. In a recent interview at a consulting firm, my interviewer referenced team culture and referenced the Pittsburgh airport test in choosing new hires at the firm. Similarly, in his exit interview from HBS a few years ago, Dean Kim Clark said the exact same thing. That “he wished he would have engaged in leadership in his role sooner.”  And that HBS (and other schools) look for cross-cultural leaders first, before anything else.  And that includes technical skills.

The main lesson I take away is that anthropology and accounting–culture and strategy–are both important.  1. Without culture, you won’t make people feel valued and enjoy their environment, and they’ll be naturally less productive and committed to their work. 2. On the other hand, without finance, you won’t always be able to understand the most important business issues, and won’t be able to execute a strategy that drives a company forward to operate in today’s complex finance-based business culture. And perhaps without both, companies will never be able to compete at the highest level.

But when a company does excel at both, they position themselves not only to grow, but also to beat the markets and have broader impact over time.  To that end, maybe we shouldn’t  have to decide. Maybe culture and strategy can [and should] work together to produce results. After all, isn’t this what the CEO does – focus on both? Similarly doesn’t the CEO work side by side with the CFO to understand the financial heath of the company and with HR to architect the organizational culture of the firm.  Further, isn’t HR tasked with the interest role of balancing quantitative finance and compensation studies alongside culture and change implementations?

To relate this back to your question, for you this means, there may not be a single major that makes or breaks your path to the C seat.  And in fact, for some people major may not prove to be very important at all depending on what field they go into. For some, the answer may be more dependant on context than anything else. The context of your current background, the classes you’ve already taken and will take, what your classmates decide to study, and what your target employers like and look for.  And all of that needs to be taken into account in the context of the current economy and your propensity for risk, if you’re not sure how some employers might look at your profile.

In the short-run though, sometimes the major you choose CAN be very important for recruiting, especially in a sluggish economy, and especially if you really want to go into certain industries, where majors are prerequisites, such as accounting, computer engineering, etc.  In these cases a major is not only a good way to show demonstrated interest, but also a way to show you have what it takes to do the work. On the other hand, I personally think that passion and interest are also important, because it’s likely you’ll study harder if you have a natural interest in the subject, and in the end, its also likely you’ll do better (see my recent post on passion).  One thing some people like to do is hedge their bets study both.  Majors today are more interdisciplinary than ever, and most schools allow double and even triple majors. So it might make sense to do something like that and get as much experience as possible. On the other hand, it’s likely that hedging will take away time from you to pursue your passion and interests. In the end, it’s a trade-off only you can make, and that only you should decide.

But also in the end, my view is that Culture and Strategy — Anthropology and Accounting — are both important and make a good team. I’m looking forward to my next discussion.

Good luck!

PS – By the way, the Kim Clark exit interview from HBS (former Dean of school) above is a great interview on leadership. I recommend that you make the time to watch it. Especially the final few minutes on what good leaders do.

Monday, May 17th, 2010 AskJeremy, Careers

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12 Comments to #AskJeremy – Careers Question: Undergraduate Major and Path To CEO

John S. Wilson
May 17, 2010

Jeremy: Great post. I don’t think colleges (traditionally) do a good enough assisting students with choosing a major from a holistic perspective. As you’ve pointed out here very well, students themselves must ultimately make the decision and live with the consequences. However at 17- and 18-years-old students are far too young for society to expect them to take into account all the pros and cons of their choice of major.

But more to the point, I think taking a pragmatic approach and learning what you enjoy as well what organizations and businesses respect — e.g., finance, and those other disciplines you pointed out — is the safest bet. And the most enjoyable long term as well.

Jeremy C Wilson
May 18, 2010

@John S. Wilson Thanks for the note John. The process of college students figuring out how to pick classes and majors is both very difficult but also good for them. And in my view, the interdisciplinary majors available today are very good bets for students and gives them a chance to get more broad exposure. On the other hand, some of the highly technical subjects are useful for getting certain jobs. I suspect you’d get a lot of different answers depending on who you ask. In the end, it’s an interesting debate.

theDreamChaser
May 18, 2010

great post Jeremy. it actually raises a good question even for MBA folks, whether one should focus more on soft or hard skills in bschool

as for college students, I don’t think there is one single major that leads to a CEO route faster than others. I like to think in terms of skills. I think if one can get trained with strong analytical and critical thinking skills without losing perspectives of the big picture, one is well-prepared for a career in business. In that sense, engineering, anthropology even literature will all do. Undergrad major is not as important as what you get out of your 4 year education, really.

Jeremy C Wilson
May 18, 2010

@theDreamChaser Thanks for the comment DreamChaser. And bravo for the great insight. I agree with you 1. that this is very applicable to MBAs (perhaps moreso) and 2. that any major can prepare you for the top job. After all, I am an anthropology major. :)

This was a hard post to write, not only because there was a lot of information to consider but also because everything here is really only true in certain contexts and it changes individually with the student/ professional. But I figured it was a great way to identify some of the higher level issues. Thanks to both you and John (comment below) for expanding on those.

[…] target industry – you may want to study something different. His email was a response to my recent post about the path to become […]

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[…] Kellogg ‘11 Windsor attended a San Francisco Kellogg Impact Series event and pondered what it would be like to come to such an event as an alumnus. Kellogg ‘11 Orlando felt the flood of work rise and pinpointed two reasons group projects can be difficult. Stanford ‘11 Palo Alto for a While checked things off her list, like securing an internship and alienating her academic advisor. Fuqua ‘11 Choc Heaven celebrated the completion of her first year and chose her internship search as the subject of her newest post. Rady ‘11 Classy Career Gal juggled away. McDonough ‘11 Part-Timer began his summer course on Business and Public Policy. Darden ‘11 Julie learned a few lessons on her first internship day at a start-up, such as ‘wear flats.’ Kellogg ‘12 Jeremy replied to a reader’s question about the best undergraduate degree path if one’s ultimate goal is to become a CEO. […]

Nistha
May 25, 2010

This is a great post because it reflects the research and thoughts put behind it. Your posts are highly mature and I truly enjoy the ones I relate to (I am engineer going into MBA, so not that much into JD). You say it all, I also feel that a little diversification is important. I’ve myself felt the importance of majoring in Finance even though I’m not interested in pure IB as it will nicely supplement by tech background. Thanks again for this post and keep writing.

Jeremy C Wilson
May 26, 2010

@Nistha Hi Nistha, thanks so much for writing and for your kind words on my post. Definitely takes a lot of time and effort to put them out, so I’m glad you’re enjoying them. And, in your case, the good news is that going forward, I plan to focus much more on business school now that 1L in law school is over.

In terms of your comment re: diversification, my opinion is that business people with highly interdisciplinary backgrounds are poised to be the most successful in the long run. The only catch is being sure to learn the right things and progress early in your career, where a large number of roles screen for having certain technical skills. In your case, though, I suspect that won’t be a big issue given your background.

Jennifer
September 27, 2012

Thank you very much for your great insights! I learnt a lot and enjoyed the reading. I am from engineering background as well and I am currently studying for my final year. I am planning my path towards CEO as well but I chose engineering as my starting point. I wonder with MBA plus finance and accounting studies (or any other relavant studies) will increase my chance in getting to the CEO position?

Jeremy C Wilson
October 5, 2012

Hi Jennifer, thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I’ll be getting back to you very shortly. Stay tuned.

Jeremy C Wilson
October 27, 2012

@Jennifer Hi Jennifer,

Thanks again for your comment. Here is a short video response to your question. Hope it is helpful and let me know if you have any other questions. Happy to help however I can.

http://www.jeremycwilson.com/2012/10/ask-jeremy-can-i-go-from-engineering-to-ceo-should-i-get-an-mba/

Best,
Jeremy

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.

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