Aiming for the stars . . . then get a top MBA

Among US companies in the FT500 46 per cent have chief executives with an MBA

Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, graduated from Harvard Business School in 1979

As they climb to the top of the corporate ladder, would-be managers may seek inspiration from the paths charted by today’s business leaders, particularly if they are considering investing time and money studying for an MBA.

Financial Times analysis reveals that almost a third of chief executives currently in charge of the biggest global companies enhanced their careers with an MBA.

Of the world’s largest 500 listed companies by market capitalisation – as featured in the most recent annual FT500 ranking – 29 per cent are led by an MBA graduate.

Moreover, the majority of these chief executives count one of the world’s top business schools as their alma mater. Two-thirds graduated from a school ranked among the top 100 in the FT Global MBA Ranking 2014 – to be published on January 27. Nine highly ranked schools [see graphic] account for 68 FT500 chief executives.

The concentration of top business leaders from a handful of prestigious business schools indicates that the largest listed companies may place greater value on an MBA gained from one of these well-known schools.

Ron Lumbra, a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm, says that holding an MBA from a top school can have a significant impact on career trajectory.

“In young life, people distinguish themselves by attending an elite business school … putting themselves on paths that differentiate them [as executive candidates] in the long term.”

In this respect, Mr Lumbra says, aspirant business leaders who graduate with an MBA from a top-tier school are a self-selecting group who are “tipping their hand to the market [about] their ambitions”.

The high standards demanded by top programmes are highly prized by employers, says Julia Tyler, executive vice-president at the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test.

“To graduate [with an MBA] from any good school says that someone is willing to invest in themself.” It also adds “a brand element”, she says.

Harvard Business School, which topped the FT’s MBA ranking in 2013, boasts 24 FT500 chief executives. Overall, US schools account for the overwhelming majority (71 per cent) of MBA graduates who are FT500 chief executives.

It is only relatively recently that the MBA has been seen as an international degree. A generation ago, when the majority of FT500 chief executives graduated, business schools in Europe and Asia had yet to gain the status that they hold today.

With eight FT500 bosses among its alumni, Insead is the only non-US business school to have more than two MBA alumni represented. Insead launched its pioneering one-year MBA programme in 1959, breaking the two-year tradition established by its older US peers. Today Insead’s MBA alumni base is 46,500-strong.

Of US FT500 companies, 46 per cent have chief executives with an MBA. This compares with 37 per cent of UK-listed FT500 companies and 31 per cent of those from Canada.

Of FT500 companies based in France, Germany and mainland China, 10 per cent or less have an MBA graduate at the helm. Only two chief executives of the 34 Japanese FT500 companies – Akio Toyoda of Toyota, the automaker and Masaaki Tsuya of Bridgestone, the tyre manufacturer – have an MBA. Both Mr Toyoda and Mr Tsuya studied for their MBAs at US schools – Babson College and Chicago Booth respectively.

Elite US business schools stand out as having been particularly successful at exporting future corporate leaders. In total, 30 non-US FT500 companies are led by US school alumni.

This includes three of Switzerland’s 10 largest listed companies – Credit Suisse, Novartis and Syngenta, the agrochemical business – and nine of the 14 UK FT500 companies that are led by an MBA graduate. Of these, only Barclays has a chief executive with an MBA from a UK school – Antony Jenkins, who went to Cranfield School of Management.

In contrast, only a handful of leading US companies have a chief executive who gained an MBA overseas. Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola, who studied at Cass Business School, London, and Bernardo Hees, of HJ Heinz, a graduate of Warwick Business School in the UK, are two examples. In total, 89 per cent of MBA alumni who run US FT500 companies are graduates of a US business school.

Michael Naufal, a managing partner at Boyden Canada, an executive search firm, says that although an MBA is seldom a requirement for any executive search, competition for top jobs means that candidates without one can reach a “glass ceiling”.

But having a top MBA does not represent a one-way ticket to the top, cautions Jill Ader, a partner at executive search firm Egon Zehnder.

“It might get you noticed, but it won’t get you the top job,” she says. Rising through corporate ranks with an MBA shows ambition, adaptability and intellect, she adds, but it is a proven record of success in business that companies are ultimately looking for in a chief executive.

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