Which degrees produce the best leaders?

Holding a degree is an essential component of securing an executive position. But which degrees produce professionals with the best leadership qualities? A recent study, reported on by Fast Company, set out to answer that question and the results were rather surprising.

The skills breakdown

The research indicated that professionals with degrees in humanities performed better in a handful of areas critical to leadership performance than MBA graduates. The study ranked MBA degree holders against various undergraduate degree holders in eight primary areas:

  • financial acumen
  • business savvy
  • compelling communication
  • driving execution
  • driving for results
  • entrepreneurship
  • influence
  • inspiring excellence

Humanities undergraduates secured high rankings for five of the eight specified skills. They most notably excelled in compelling communication, driving results and inspiring excellence. Those same competencies were only mid-range skills for professionals holding an undergraduate degree in business. However, they excelled in financial acumen and business savvy – where humanities notably lacked.

Holding a degree is an essential component of securing an executive position.”

Somewhat surprisingly, engineering undergrads found themselves at the bottom of the leadership-equipped pile – with weak scores in six skills sets and only mid-range rankings for the remaining two (financial acumen and driving results).

These results were shocking when considering the findings of recent research by Forbes contributor Christian Stadler. According to Stadler, 27 percent of Fortune 100 CEOs hold a degree in engineering or science. Not to mention his projection that engineering majors will be at the head of the CEO race in coming years due to their tech-minded nature in a digitally-advanced era.

Education: An accurate leadership indicator?

The undergraduate findings were surprising in themselves but what about MBA holders? The research indicated that undergraduates performed better than MBAs in interpersonal skills, entrepreneurial skills and results-driven practices.

So, where did MBAs excel? Predictably, these graduates were well-equipped in areas of financial acumen. They also showed promise in their business savvy nature and strategic decision making. However, when it came to things like coaching, results and visionary leadership skills, MBAs fell notably short.

The latter has much to do with real-world skills. MBAs are often forced to step out of the business world and into school in order to secure their degrees. While there is a lot of valuable learning in the classroom, the training is conceptual at best. Hence why MBAs ranked low in terms of visionary leadership. This skill in particular is something that can only be learned and improved upon via real-world practice.

While there is a lot of valuable learning in the classroom, the training is conceptual at best.”

The takeaway

Overall, the findings indicate that degrees may not be the best indicator of leadership ability. Despite this, professionals vying for executive positions should be mindful of the biases that come attached to their degrees.

When approaching an interview, job candidates must recognize the skills that their qualifications are known to historically lack and make up for these capabilities with the relevant responses and experiences.

For organizations undergoing the executive search and recruitment process, this is where an executive placement firm can add undeniable value. Skilled consultants can recognize when a candidate’s degree genuinely indicates proficiencies or deficiencies in certain skill areas and when the degree is partly irrelevant to the ultimate decision.

The ultimate takeaway? While education is an important stepping stone on the path to executive leadership, the area of focus is not always a direct indicator of business success. Every executive candidate presents unique circumstances which cannot be generalized. Organizations must look past degrees to fully understand whether a professional is truly equipped for leadership.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 45 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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