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Do I Need an MBA to Reach the C-Suite?

If you’re looking to climb the ranks and reach the c-suite and you don’t have an MBA, you have likely asked yourself along the way, “Do I need an MBA to reach the C-suite?”

Because I come across this question so often when working with corporate leaders, I decided to address this common concern.

Let’s start with the stats:
  • According to MBA Central, 1/3 of Fortune 500 Companies have CEOs who have an MBA
  • The WSJ claims that 40% of CEO’s at top companies hold MBA’s. Only 23% of retail industry CEOs have MBA’s.
  • Finance firms top the list- at 55% of CEOs holding MBAs

If you apply this reasoning to the rest of the c-suite positions, the likelihood that the rest of the c-suite has an MBA is likely lower (I couldn’t find official stats to support this).

That means that the majority of C-suite executives DO NOT have MBAs.

The exception here is financial firms.  If you’d like to ascend the ranks in a Fortune 500 finance company, an MBA is recommended.

But look at tech and retail- these are industries where on-the-job experience tends to trump advanced degrees.  Likely because they both change so fast (vs. CPG where innovation tends to move at a slower pace), past experience doing what a company is looking to do or a track record of success executing in your current company will trump any degree you gain.

There are many examples of well-known corporate leaders without advanced degrees who were able to rise to the top. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey all made it to the C-suite- and the list goes on.

Where an MBA Helps

  • If you’re making a career pivot (or want this flexibility in the future)
  • If you want to accelerate your ascent to the top
  • To expand your network
  • To learn foundational knowledge that will help you tie all the pieces together

Speaking from personal experience as an MBA recipient, there is no doubt that the MBA provides a ton of value. You learn business fundamentals and network with some incredible people.  It adds a “brand name” to your resume, which always helps (unless someone has a stigma about MBA’s or the school you attended.  In this rare circumstance, it won’t help you).  In addition, if you let it, the MBA experience can provide a lot of opportunity for personal growth.  My full-time MBA experience encompassed some of the best years of my life.

But an MBA is not a guarantee that you will reach the c-suite.  Nothing supersedes hard work, developing the right relationships, being a respected leader and let’s face it, a little bit of luck.  In addition, the role and demands of c-suite leaders has shifted over time.  Once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals.  An MBA can definitely give you a strong grasp of business fundamentals.  But strong leadership skills?  That is a more complex topic that can be complimented by classroom work but is best developed over time and complimented by a strong understanding of self and how to motivate and influence others.  Click here to read more about how what it takes to be a great leader.

When you read c-suite job descriptions, you’ll notice that few (or none) will specify advanced degrees as a must-have.  We see it included as a “nice to have”- but on the job learning and deep institutional knowledge will trump the MBA experience any day.

Regardless of the stats and well-known examples of non-MBA leaders, I still get a number of aspiring professionals who ask me if they need an MBA to climb the ranks. 

When I find when I dig deeper, what I find at the core of this question is a deeply imbedded fear that rears its ugly head when high achievers are on the brink of greatness: “Am I good enough?”

The Question You Really Want to Ask Yourself

What you might want to consider is this: do YOU think you’re good enough?  Do you think you have what it takes to rise to c-suite?  Do you interpret ambiguous cues from your peers and superiors in a way that is empowering or detrimental?

I’ve seen people without MBA’s rise to CEO level.  But I’ve never seen someone with a Harvard MBA and a disbelief in self rise to the CEO level. 

The MBA and the belief in self are two separate requirements- one is tangible and the other is intangible.

But it’s clear when someone doesn’t believe in themselves by subtle cues they inadvertently exhibit.

They downplay their contribution when they are publicly recognized

They don’t seize the opportunity to present in a high-stakes meeting

They don’t voice their desire to get promoted- they wait for others to recognize their contributions

They can’t articulate how they contributed to the success of a project

The belief/disbelief in self shows up every day in almost every way.  And when others who are considering them for promotion sense it, it will be weighed in their capability to be operate as a strong and competent leader.

So should you get your MBA in your ascent to the C-suite?  It certainly doesn’t hurt.  But you definitely won’t get to the c-suite if, at your core, you don’t believe you have it within you and don’t exude that belief to others.  To dig more into that, click here.

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