August 30, 2018

The Building Blocks of a CEO


So you want to be a CEO?

CEOs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, educational tracks, and career paths. That makes it difficult to plan a career track that leads to the head of the boardroom table. With constantly shifting corporate priorities, brand elements, and culture factors, it can be hard to imagine what a company will require of its CEO in a decade or two.

That doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses. New research from LinkedIn explores the profiles of 12,000 CEOs, analyzing their career paths to see how they ended up in the big chair.

“Our research proved that there’s no single path to CEO today, and with the diversity of skills entering the workforce, we don’t think this will change,” says Sarah O’Brien, global insights director at LinkedIn Talent Solutions. “When we looked at the 20 fastest-growing jobs last December, we found that talent demand in the US is changing so rapidly that many of the roles on the list didn’t even exist five years ago. It’s possible that the top field of study for tomorrow’s CEOs doesn’t exist yet, either.”

What Do CEOs Study?

Despite the unpredictability of the CEO career path, LinkedIn’s analysis of CEO profiles did ferret out some trends and commonalities. For example, Stanford University was the most commonly attended school among CEOs, while computer science was the most popular field of study.

“C-suite hopefuls can start on the right path by staying on top of their chosen field, building upon current skills, and learning new ones,” O’Brien says. “Recruiters looking for C-suite potential can keep an eye out for those who can handle complex problems, inspire others, and demonstrate strong results at every stage of their career path.”

The field of study one choses after high school isn’t necessarily a key determiner of one’s long-term career path. However, educational choices made throughout your career may help you climb the corporate ladder. Among the CEOs reviewed by LinkedIn, only 33 percent had an MBA or other advanced degree, but this trend is likely to change in the years to come as rapidly advancing technologies and best practices spur more business leaders into continuing education.

“While the skills we learn in college and graduate school are important to build a foundation for our career, they aren’t necessarily pathways to lifelong opportunities,” says O’Brien. “Instead, a continuous approach to learning and the ability to put those skills to work will be the real determining factor … during the next decade. Today, 47 percent of Generation Y and Z employees consider their current skill set redundant or believe it will be in the next 4-5 years. Many will make a job change specifically to further their skills. The era of one-and-done learning is over.”

Ladder Climbing in the Age of Job Hopping

Twenty percent of CEOs were promoted from within, according to the LinkedIn analysis. However, we also live in an age of job hopping, where workers at all skill and experience levels frequently change jobs to achieve career advancement. To build a base of loyal employees who will be ripe for the picking when new executive roles open up, companies must create environments in which career opportunities are clear and learning and cross-training are easily accessible.

“Company leadership should expose up-and-coming leaders to different areas of the business and empower them to explore roles within the company,” says O’Brien. “Upskilling your employees will not only help retain them, but will also align them with the company’s needs, allowing them to grow up in the company instead of out.”

The most popular entry-level job among current CEOs is consulting. While an entry-level gig doesn’t necessarily determine what one will be doing a decade or two down the road, consultants (among other positions) do tend to develop collaborative skill sets that are useful in the boardroom later on.

“As a consultant, you’re tasked with tackling complex challenges across multiple business lines and changing work environments, which presents the perfect practice ground to work on problem-solving skills that CEOs use every day,” O’Brien says.

Along with consulting, software engineer, analyst, sales manager, and project manager make up the five most commonly held first jobs of the CEOs LinkedIn analyzed. This may seem like a disparate group of roles, but there is a common thread here.

“If you take a look at the top job functions of first jobs, a different picture emerges,” O’Brien says. “Business development is the most common job function by more than double that of sales, the second most common function. Business development requires a strong mix of sales, strategy, and communication skills, all of which are crucial to the role of CEO.”

When looking into the crystal ball of your career path, the future may be murky at best. There will be unexpected changes in both your life and your career, and it may not always be clear which fork in the road will lead to the corner office. As the LinkedIn data shows, however, the corporate ladder will always reward workers who are driven, willing to learn, loyal, and adaptable.

Read more in Leadership

Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.