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Not all leaders have college degrees. You’ve heard the stories. How Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never finished college, yet started the world’s biggest companies.
These stories make you wonder if you really need degrees to become a CEO? The law of averages says yes.
While there are few outliers, most chief executive officers have college degrees. In fact, CEOs often have both undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.
Read on to find out which CEO degrees will help you land a job as the highest ranking person in a company.
What Is A CEO?
CEO stands for Chief Executive Officer. The term “CEO” brings images to mind of executive leaders like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk. In reality, heads of corporate behemoths are a small representation of the thousands of CEOs who lead their own companies.
CEOs operate, own, and run companies of all shapes and sizes. They manage firms with a handful of employees to companies with thousands scattered around the globe. For example, a CEO can be in charge of a small janitorial firm or a Fortune 500 company, such as Home Depot or Walmart.
But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most CEOs are self-employed small business owners.
Surprising? Given the media portrayal of CEOs ruling large firms, it can be. But most CEOs are managers, partners, and business owners.
In fact, they go by other names, too.
- managing partner
What Degree Do You Need to Be a CEO?
Most company leaders have degrees, and CEO degrees come in all shapes and sizes.
Some CEOs hold business degrees from a business school, such as a:
- Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Others earn a bachelor’s degree in pre-law or psychology before earning an MBA. But a business management degree is not the only education path to this career.
Undergraduate CEO College Degrees
If you’re wondering what to study to become a CEO, it’s important to remember you have options. Top business schools say there isn’t one CEO degree, but instead many different pathways.
The best bachelor’s degree to become a CEO depends on your interests.
What are you passionate about?
What interests you?
The answers to the above questions are keys to uncovering which chief executives degree will suit you. Remember, not all CEOs have undergraduate degrees in business and engineering.
The most common degrees for CEOs at the undergraduate degree level include:
These bachelor’s degrees are often requirements for an MBA. So, if you plan to pursue a graduate degree in business school, you will want to look at the prerequisites.
Less common bachelor’s degrees for CEOs include:
- computer science
- health administration
- political science
CEO college majors don’t have to be in business or engineering. But if you earn an undergraduate degree in another subject area, consider taking business and management classes that will help you after you graduate and land a leadership role.
Graduate CEO College Degrees
The most common CEO graduate degree is the MBA. This advanced degree builds on business studies earned in a BBA program.
With an MBA, you show yourself qualified to work as a leader in business. But an advanced business degree is not the only way into a CEO career.
To become a CEO, you can earn master’s degrees in the following and still land a job as a chief executive officer.
- computer science
- health administration
- political science
In fact, some engineers have successfully crossed the threshold to an MBA program. They hold a master’s degree in business and engineering. Others have earned an MBA alongside another graduate degree, such as a master’s degree in policy or law.
Public sector executives often have a CEO degree (graduate degree) in:
- business administration
- political science
- public administration
Top business school for graduate and undergraduate degree programs
- Harvard Business School
- Stanford University Business School
In the world of academia, CEOs are often referred to as college presidents or superintendents. They usually have doctorates or PhDs in education administration or a specific subject area.
The same applies to healthcare industry executives, who often need an MD or similar healthcare-related CEO degrees.
If you don’t want to earn an MBA, think about the industry you’d like to work in as a CEO. After you’ve decided on the industry, earn your graduate degrees in a related discipline. But don’t forget to take related business classes in accounting, finance, and statistics. After all, you want to be as prepared for the job as you can.
You Have the CEO Education Requirements, Now What?
Often, companies promote a CEO within an organization to become the top executive. They’re also recruited from outside companies.
The American Management Association (AMA) is a resource for aspiring CEOs to research available leadership positions and requirements. In one of the AMA’s posted papers, author Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. lists “25 Ways to Stay Employed.” As a CEO, it’s important to:
- focus on remaining current and up-to-date with new leadership philosophies
- stay informed on current technologies
- take courses that keep you in the loop of new trends
If you have a bachelor’s degree, consider working toward an advanced degree.
Professional associations and networking also help you stay ahead of the curve in changing business practices.
Developing social capital through networking is critical, especially in tight-knit industries. Moreover, CEOs must show a track record of success. This includes the ability to promote and maintain growth of an organization.
Organizational leadership academics James Kouzes and Barry Posner say that credibility is the most important quality for leaders to have. This means a successful CEO must garner trust and belief from those they lead.
What Are the Top Executive Duties?
CEOs go by different titles, depending on the company. The most common CEO titles are:
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Chief Operating Officer (COO)
- Executive Vice President (EVP)
CEOs aren’t mired in the day-to-day operations of their own company, unless they work in a small business operation. For those running medium and large firms, it’s not about the quantity of the work. It’s about completing the work at the highest level of the organization.
CEOs spend a lot of time strategizing and looking at big picture performance. They develop and put in place the vision they’ve created.
But CEOs of small businesses do more day-to-day work. Also, they carry out the long-term vision and strategic direction of their organization.
Duties of a top executive include:
- appointing and supervising the department heads or managers
- developing a brand and marketing strategy designed to increase awareness and market share
- evaluating staff performance
- implementing policy changes
- overseeing an organization’s finances
- negotiating labor and contracts with suppliers
- preparing budgets
- problem solving
- reviewing reports
While many CEOs engage in these types of activities, their duties depend on the size and type of organization. Small business owners tend to focus on quality control and day-to-day activities. Medium and large organizational CEOs focus more on policies and planning strategies.
How CEO Education Requirements Help with Your Duties
To improve your abilities to lead as a CEO, you need a strong educational foundation. Degrees needed to become a CEO help you qualify for the job because your classes cover topics you’ll face as a leader of a company.
Graduate degree classes cover topics in:
- customer service
- human resources
- laws & regulations
- leadership and management skills
- national security operations
- problem solving skills
- technological tools
Start your formal education early and build a strong leadership foundation that highlights your strengths. Then work toward your goal to direct a company’s future as its CEO.
CEO Certifications, Licenses, and Registrations
Some top executive positions require licensures such as a CPA, Series 7, or Six Sigma.
The most popular is the Six Sigma. It relates to efficiency and project management in organizations. Various levels for this certification include:
- Yellow Belt
- Green Belt
- Black Belt
Popular training programs where business executives receive certifications include:
- American Management Association
- Financial Executives International
- National Management Association
Tech companies need their executives to have IT certifications. You can earn them from colleges or private organizations. Other firms, such as healthcare organizations, want their executives licensed. These firms hire licensed attorneys or physicians. They also hire CEOs with PhDs.
Important Qualities of a CEO
In addition to degrees and work experience, future CEOs have certain qualities that make them a successful leader. These include:
Ability to delegate
The best CEOs know that no one can do it all. Instead, good CEOs empower others and trust them to do their job right.
CEOs know when to delegate tasks and how to lean on others. They also know how to staff their weaknesses. For example, they fill in their skill gaps and blind spots with people who are strong where they are not.
A CEO’s success comes from their ability to communicate in both small and large groups. With strong communication skills, everyone is on the same page. Your employees work together as a team.
But without good communication, cliques and organizational silos can develop. Misinformation can spread and create an unhealthy work environment.
The success of any organization rises and falls on the CEO’s ability to lead. A good CEO has strong leadership skills. In good and bad times, they provide guidance for the direction of the company.
Good leaders know the company is only as good as its employees and vice versa. As a result, the best CEOs know when to put the firm first, but never at the expense of those doing the work. If employees feel empowered, they will work harder for the good of the company.
Make quick decisions
In addition to having leadership skills, good CEOs know how to make tough decisions. They have the final word on important decisions that impact the company.
But they also know when to listen and rely on the team they have around them. They know when to consider input from their trusted advisors.
Strong CEOs know how to network for the benefit of the company. They acquire talent or establish partnerships by making strong relationships inside and outside their industry.
In doing so, they build trust and a strong reputation. A great CEO knows how important networking is.
Strategizing involves building a long-term plan to reach a desired goal. Strong CEOs set clear goals and objectives. Then they facilitate a journey toward that goal.
The most important strategies include:
- focusing on the market
- making a product or service stand out
- staffing a company with strong leaders
Without a strategy, a company will fail.
You’ve seen the news. Stories filled with CEOs earning exorbitant seven and eight figure salaries and bonuses. But the reality is the average CEO earns an annual wage of $185,950, according to 2022 data collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
There are those who earn massive million-dollar wages, but most CEOs earn much smaller salaries. Data suggests the highest 10% of top executives earn more than $208,000/year and the lowest 10% earn about $63,000/year.
While this data provides excellent insight, CEO pay varies. For example, a CEO of a major corporation can earn much more than the mayor of a small town.
CEO Job Outlook
According to the BLS, job growth for top executives will increase 8% between 2020 and 2030.
But a closer look at the data shows a 6% decrease in CEO positions during that time. This is due to office technology improvements and changing organizational structures. Work done by many CEOs is no longer needed. As a result, companies hire only one CEO instead of three.
While there are a limited number of CEO openings, you can still aspire to land a job as a company leader. In fact, there are 250,000 chief executives in the United States.
Regional and city data suggests California and Florida have a higher number of CEOs compared with other states. Together these two states employ over 50,000 CEOs.
Also, large cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC have more CEOs than smaller cities. In addition, other top metro areas for CEOs include:
- New York City
- San Francisco
Work Environment of a CEO
CEOs work across all types of organizations and sectors of the economy. With hundreds of thousands of CEOs employed, the work environment varies.
The highest number of CEOs are self-employed business owners. They make up about 24% of the total number of CEOs. From there, the distribution of CEOs is roughly equal across industries.
While their duties vary, CEOs often work more than the standard 40 hours per week. Many work evenings and weekends.
CEOs also travel to attend meetings and conferences. They visit other offices and locations away from company headquarters.
Final Thoughts on the Best Degree to Become a CEO
No matter the size of the organization, the road to becoming a CEO is long. It requires time, effort, and expertise. It also requires a CEO degree that will take you up the corporate ladder.
While CEOs work in different types of companies, they all need a firm grasp on foundational business concepts, such as:
Future CEOs gain management skills through schooling and work experience. They also develop skills in leadership and communication while taking classes and working on the job. Their skills and experience help them move up the ranks so they can capture the top leadership positions in a company.