You don’t have to have an MBA to get to the top - but it helps…
By Elaine Watson
- Last updated on
First, we talked to some recruitment experts about the most common path to the top.
In smaller companies, says Laurie Hyllberg (pictured left), vice president, food & beverage recruiters at Kinsa Group, high flyers get to wear many hats, and often gain a good understanding of the commercial and operational aspects of running a business pretty rapidly, so it’s not unusual to see an operations manager move into the boardroom.
In larger companies, however, the sales and marketing route is the more typical pathway to the top, although commercially-focused candidates that also demonstrate an understanding of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement are in high demand given that boosting profit margins via operational efficiency gains can deliver just as much to the bottom line as a great sales pitch.
If you want to make it to the helm of a Fortune 500 company, however, you probably need to secure a senior commercial role pretty early in your career, and while it’s not a deal-breaker if you don’t have an MBA under your belt, those three letters after your name can certainly help, she says (half of the execs on our list have one).
Hitting a ceiling
As for working your way to the top, while very able people can progress from hourly paid work into salaried roles very rapidly, they often hit a ceiling at some point if they don’t have a degree, and sometimes additional qualifications such as a master’s degree, she adds.
As for personality types, quirky people with great ideas, drive and determination are always creating and running their own businesses, but if you want to run someone else’s business, you typically need to have certain key skills in order to make progress, she says.
“You obviously need to have strong business and financial acumen, but you also need to be a strategic thinker, to have vision, know how to build high-performing teams, have strong communications and networking skills, and be willing to take risks.”
Keep learning, share your knowledge with others, and be prepared to take risks
Isabel Goode, director of the food & beverage division at Bauer Consulting, says the most successful candidates also have other key traits: “The willingness to share what you know with others, not to be selfish with knowledge, and to keep learning.”
And while people that flourish in R&D, technical or operational roles are often just as smart, if not smarter, than their counterparts in sales or marketing roles, they don’t always want to sit in the CEO’s seat, or don't always thrive in more customer-facing roles, she adds.
Start your own business!
But that's not to say that the sales guys always trump the ops guys, says Peter Stern, vice president at recruiter Bristol Associates. "If you've got a very vertically integrated business with a lot of production assets, someone with operational and supply chain expertise might have the edge."
In general, however, to run a Fortune 500 company today, people with a "blue chip pedigree", an MBA from a top business school, a track record of lightning fast promotions and a proven ability to increase shareholder value are essential, he says.
And if your résumé doesn't quite match up? Start your own business, he says. "Then you'll be CEO and chief bottle washer at the same time!"