Employers are continually upping the ante on academic credentials. Nearly a third of jobs that once required only a high-school diploma now demand a four-year college degree, while one in four jobs that used to require a bachelor’s degree now require a master’s degree. Meanwhile, 75% of Americans believe that higher education is unaffordable and out of reach.
Employers often overvalue pedigree out of desire to play it safe — but hiring mistakes still abound. Meanwhile, a huge number of potential superstars are being overlooked.
For over 20 years, we have helped boards and CEOs avoid painful mistakes as they groom and select CEOs and C-suite leaders. In the process of that work, we assembled a data-set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and our CEO Genome Project studied 2,600 in-depth to analyze who gets to the top and how. We have seen firsthand that an Ivy-draped diploma doesn’t guarantee someone will be good at the job, but even so, we were surprised to uncover that 8% of CEOs in our sample did not complete college at all.
Getting to the top is never easy, but it is especially hard when you lack the hallmarks of prestige that can wow potential employers. So how did the 8% of our CEO sample make it to the top without a college degree? The CEOs who overcame the odds made themselves look like a safe bet by excelling in three ways.
Become a proven insider: In the absence of ready-made credibility that comes with academic credentials, you can establish bona fides by gaining deep industry-specific and firm-specific knowledge. 89% of CEOs without college degrees “grew up” in the same industry where they served as CEO, and spent 40% more time in the industry where they became CEO compared to their peers with college degrees. Employers often feel safer hiring industry and company insiders. These CEOs’ deep knowledge and relationships gave them a platform for success that more than compensated for lack of formal education.
CEOs without a degree also stayed on average 25% longer in roles and held 13% fewer roles than their college-graduating CEO peers. It typically took 15% longer for them to get to the CEO seat.
In 1970, Bob started his career as a code breaker during the Vietnam War. In his first job out of the military, he worked for an alarm company. By holding multiple positions in two companies and working alongside four different CEOs, Bob built up sufficient trust and credibility to extinguish any concerns over his credentials. His crowning achievement was turning around and selling a security company which had only a few thousand dollars left in the bank, and which had been written down as an investment by the owners when he took it over. The company was sold for nearly $50 million. His deep industry knowledge helped him take the company through a nine-year transformation where he consolidated operations, acquired 24 businesses, and reduced bad debt by 88%, all while doubling revenue.
If you don’t have a strong track record in a single company or industry, you will likely have better luck at smaller companies than large ones. We have found that small businesses are open to a much broader range of educational backgrounds and pedigrees, in part because the available talent pool is often thinner. Finally, there’s always the option of starting your own company. CEOs who don’t have a college degree are twice as likely to be company founders as CEOs who do.
Overindex on results. CEOs who get to the top without a college degree let their outsized results speak for themselves. As we shared in What Sets Successful CEOs Apart, reliability is one of four CEO Genome behaviors that differentiates successful CEOs — and the only one that also doubles your chances of getting hired into the role.
One of the CEOs we studied, “Mark,” had been accustomed to being underestimated and thrived on exceeding people’s expectations. When he started out his career as a truck driver, a competitor noticed that he was delivering three truck-loads a day rather than the expected one daily load. “That was unheard of,” Mark said. “So he asked me to come work for him.” In his first sales job, he again delivered the same outsized results. Although his colleagues were expected to grow their divisions’ sales by 5% to 10%, his boss challenged him to grow his division by 30% and promised that anything over 10% would be returned as a bonus. Undaunted, Mark grew his division by 60% and expanded the company’s footprint from a single city to 13 states. With a laser-like focus on driving results, Mark went from truck driver to CEO of a $50 million business in less than two decades.
Mark’s success derived from the fact that he got things done — and got noticed for them. The majority (56%) of CEOs without college degrees in our survey came up through sales and marketing. Numbers speak louder than credentials, and it’s easier to get noticed in roles that drive measurable topline results for the business.
Interestingly, the CEOs without college degrees had almost twice the rate of military experience than the overall pool of CEOs we analyzed. In the absence of a college degree, military experience can offer opportunities to learn important skills and demonstrate results in early leadership experiences.
Be a talent magnet. The CEOs without degrees that we analyzed were more likely than their peers to proactively surround themselves with strong talent and lean on the team to contribute expertise. They were humble, and more open to soliciting ideas from all types of people, regardless of status or rank.
We met Brian when he became CEO of a $350 million staffing company. His recipe for success? Banking on strong performers and seeking out big ideas — at every level of the organization. Soon after he hired a new administrative assistant, she suggested an idea that landed the biggest contract in the industry’s history. Earlier in his career at a different company, Brian started a practice of asking his customers to name the most talented people they knew in the industry. Although a customer named someone who was much more senior and made significantly more money than Brian, he convinced that person to join his team. “He runs one of their most profitable branches to this day.”
This kind of focus on building a strong team goes a long way. In contrast, we were intrigued to uncover that the CEOs who saw “independence” as their defining character trait were twice as likely to underperform compared to other CEOs.
Each of us faces our own formidable hurdles on the way to the top. While the CEOs we studied surmounted the extra obstacle of not having gone to college, we think their career paths can provide lessons to other leaders regardless of their level of education. We will all do a better job if we learn our business deeply, focus on delivering results, and learn to lean on others.
BY-Kim Rosenkoetter Powell & Elena Lytkina Botelho & Vamsi Tetali