London 2012 - UK Landmarks...OXFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: A woman cycles past Balliol College in Oxford city centre on February 24, 2012 in Oxford, England. Oxford University has a student population in excess of 20,000 taken from over 140 countries around the world. The University is made up of 38 independent, self-governing colleges, three of which: University College, Balliol College, and Merton College, were established by the 13th century. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Balliol College, University of Oxford © Getty

Getting to the top of a blue-chip company is still the prerogative of those who study at the world’s most elite universities, according to Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search company.

In a survey of top companies in France, Germany, the UK and the US, it appears that the French are the most elitist of all. Half the chief executives from companies in the SBF 120, the index of France’s 120 biggest companies, graduated from one of just four elite schools — HEC Paris, Insead, Ena or Polytechnique.

In France the network is particularly important, says Luis Urbano, Heidrick & Struggles’ managing partner for Europe and Africa. “It [France] has a stronger club feeling.”

However, the Oxbridge factor still holds sway in the boardrooms of the UK’s top companies, with almost a quarter (24 per cent) of FTSE 100 top dogs having graduated from Oxford or Cambridge. In the US 28 per cent of chief executives in the top 100 Fortune companies graduated from just seven universities Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Pennsylvania.

What is more, in the US 42 per cent of these high-fliers had studied for an MBA, compared to just 27 per cent in the UK and 24 per cent in France.

In Germany it is a completely different tale, says Mr Urbano, with engineering degrees and doctoral qualifications proving to be the determining factors for career success in Dax 30 and MDax 50 companies — 38 per cent of these chief executives hold a doctoral qualification.

Compared with Heidrick & Struggles’ previous survey in 2013, the most notable change is that more of these top executives have advanced degrees. In France, the US and Germany, the increase in those with masters or doctoral degrees is 3, 5, and 7 per cent respectively, but in the UK the increase is 12 per cent.

Mr Urbano, who holds an MBA from IMD, believes that future executives will need more high-level education. “We need a chief executive that is more of a systemic thinker than what we had in the past. I think the new chief executives are going to have to keep learning.

“The future chief executive needs to be better educated, better travelled and there needs to be greater diversity.”

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