leadership

Why having an MBA is no guarantee of CEO success: Suncorp survey

Engel Schmidl /

Australia’s top CEOs are largely in their early 50s, male, and university-educated, often at overseas institutions.

These are traits you’d expect among the CEOs of our 50 largest ASX-listed companies.

But not everything revealed in the Suncorp survey of these CEOs – the “Suncorp Bank Power Index” – was so predictable. The study busts five myths about what it takes to be a top CEO.

1) Companies scour the world for top talent

The study reveals that if you want to lead a top company, you’re far more likely to be promoted internally than headhunted from afar. Two thirds (66%) of the CEOs of ASX50 companies were internal appointments, who were usually promoted after serving in a deputy role at the company.

This suggests soft leadership skills aren’t as important a characteristic for leaders as knowledge and expertise in the workings and challenges of a particular business.

2) MBAs matter

They don’t. In fact, only one in four of our top CEOs has an MBA.

The most common undergraduate degrees were economics (16%), commerce (16%) and engineering (16%), closely followed by degrees in science (14%) and arts (10%). “If you want to make it to the top of the corporate business ladder, a commerce, economics or engineering degree appears to be the most common ticket to success, with the prestige degrees of medicine and law taking a back seat among this group,” Suncorp Bank executive manager Craig Fenwick said.

Even more surprisingly, one in 10 of our top CEOs has only a high school education.

3) The glass ceiling’s been cracked, or at least dented

This is counterintuitive only in the sense that many would expect we would’ve made a little more progress towards gender equality. When it comes to Australia’s largest listed companies, only two (Westpac and Sydney Airport) are led by women.

4) Baby boomers are sitting on all the good positions

Almost half (21 out of 51, or 42%) of the top CEOs are Gen X (born between 1961 and 1980). This pays short shrift to the notion that baby boomers lead the country, though they are the most common age group. Just over half (26 out of 50) of our top CEOs are baby boomers.

However, it does take a little while to get to the top. The youngest CEO to lead an ASX50 company is NAB’s Cameron Clyne, who is 44. He’s closely followed by rival CBA’s Ian Narev, Dexus Property’s Darren Steinberg and Incitec Pivot’s James Fazzino, all 45. The oldest CEO of a top 50 company is Rupert Murdoch at 81. The average age is 52.

5) Educational prestige matters

Our most prestigious education institutions are the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne, according to international rankings such as those carried out by QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education. But they don’t produce the most successful CEOs.

In fact, the University of NSW and Monash University are the country’s corporate power-makers, each having educated five of the top 50 CEOS. Close behind was the University of Western Australia, which educated four leaders (only one of whom, Iluka Resources’ David Robb, leads a miner). The University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney had two CEOs apiece.

But when it comes to education, international experience does matter. One in three CEOs has studied overseas.

This article first appeared on LeadingCompany.

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