The big debate: do you need a degree to enter the C-suite?

Higher education can help future executives develop the skills they need to climb the corporate ladder. But, in today’s evolving business landscape, the notion that you need a degree to achieve a C-suite position is being increasingly challenged

Bill Gates famously has no degree. After three semesters at Harvard, he dropped out to co-found Microsoft. Despite his own trajectory, however, Gates has often stated that “getting a degree is a much surer path to success.” 

Academic attainment in a relevant field can help future executives to hone the skills they need to climb the corporate ladder. Universities play a role not only in preparing graduates for employment but by teaching them critical transferable life skills. Rapidly changing demand for skills in today’s workforce may also boost the need for a degree. Research by the World Economic Forum predicts that, over the next five years, there will be increased demand for analytical thinking, creativity, complex problem-solving and technical literacy skills; attributes that universities help shape and ones that are likely to be highly sought after in future leaders.

But, in today’s evolving and dynamic business landscape, the notion that you need a degree to achieve a C-suite position is increasingly being challenged. Job postings that did not require a degree increased 90% between 2021 and 2022, according to data by LinkedIn, and big firms such as PwC, Goldman Sachs, Google and Apple have done away with degree requirements in a bid to focus more on skills, remove unnecessary barriers to jobs and to attract diverse talent. 

The growing acceptance of alternative education paths, including online courses, certifications and apprenticeship programmes, suggests that life experience and work experience can deliver what’s needed to rise through the ranks, despite what might have once appeared as a lack of education or glaring holes on a CV. Businesses are starting to take this on board, with the likes of IBM and Accenture investing in hiring routes such as apprenticeships so recruits can train on the job. 

Alternative paths to leadership are becoming more well trodden and there is something to be said for experience over education, but a degree still holds considerable value in a highly competitive market where future executives must do everything they can to stand out. So, what’s the best path to a C-suite career?

Degrees are no longer the differentiating factor they once were

Ben Graham 
Co-founder and managing partner of global executive search firm TritonExec 

Although there are certain roles in the world of work, such as doctors or lawyers, that absolutely require a university degree because of their particular and technical nature, it’s a myth that this is a prerequisite for a C-suite position. 

Of course, degrees show individuals have committed to something, seen it through, had the discipline to persevere and gained a ‘recognised’ perspective over some element of life. But, in our experience, 95% of the time candidates will have degrees that are not related to the eventual roles they end up taking. Furthermore, of the 500 senior placements we made across 2023, mostly in the professional services or management consulting space, the first requirement of clients conducting the hiring is 15-20 years of experience and solid track record related to the role.

Traditionally, a degree was a major foot in the doorway, but over the past 10 to 20 years we’ve seen the meteoric rise of startups and large enterprises going through series B or C funding and portfolio companies. These more agile businesses are focused on the raw skills and the potential of candidates into the future.

We have placed enough CEO, COO and CIO positions to know that a degree is rarely the deciding factor in securing a position at the top 

Companies are looking beyond education today. Candidates with hugely rich and diverse backgrounds, excluding a traditional degree, have proven to be highly prized and, in many instances, we’ve seen some incredible hires based on their alternative paths up through the ranks. These individuals are no less capable than their peers with degrees and many prove this through their experience in the workplace rather than the classroom.

We have placed enough CEO, COO and CIO positions to know that a degree is rarely the deciding factor in securing a position at the top table. Among many recent searches, a degree was not the first thing our clients considered. Degrees will always have their place, but my wish is that the culture of the workplace quickly adapts to championing the best candidate regardless of education – so let’s keep an open door to the broad pool of talent that choose to sidestep university.

A degree can open doors that would otherwise remain closed 

Leo Smigel 
Founder of data science platform Analyzing Alpha 

I’ve learned that experience counts for a lot, but more schooling can also really help you to succeed. Degrees like an MBA show that you understand important business activities, including handling money, marketing products, and making plans for the future. Having specialised knowledge about these parts of the business is especially important in today‘s challenging economic climate, when making big decisions that impact the whole company.

University opens doors to meet successful people who teach classes and share their stories. They may be able to help later on with advice or connections. Having a strong network within your field of expertise is not only a considerable competitive advantage when applying for executive jobs, but can also help you to grow professionally, accelerating your path to the top.

Research also indicates that degrees often lead to more money over the course of your career, compared to just working. As such, it’s worth thinking of higher education as a long-term investment.

Having a degree isn’t everything, but it offers benefits like gained knowledge, new connections, and higher lifetime earnings

The skills and experience you can gain in completing a degree holds a lot of value in the eyes of shareholders and investors. Let’s say, for example, you started a very successful company all on your own, but money management isn’t your strong suit. Taking the company public is complex. While you taught yourself a lot, an MBA could prove to investors and the board that you’re capable of handling the process. 

Of course, there’s a strong argument for having a healthy blend of both experience and education in the executive suite. Hiring a CFO who knows finances inside and out could help since they balance what you do best, which is lead. Together, your experiences and degrees make a good case for being trusted with guiding important choices and shaping where the company goes in a top position.

Having a degree isn’t everything for those roles, but it offers benefits like gained knowledge, new connections, and higher lifetime earnings versus costs. Skills from work are still important too, but education helps ambitious people reach the top company levels best.